Japanese Navy Visits Blue Ridge for Holiday Exchange
By Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Brian A. Stone
YOKOSUKA, Japan - Officers from Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) ship Hatakaze and USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), U.S. 7th Fleet command ship, exchanged holiday greetings during a traditional Japanese wreath exchange aboard Blue Ridge, Dec. 20.

The wreath presented to Blue Ridge, known as Korematsu, is intended to bring good luck and prosperity during the New Year and exemplified the appreciation JMSDF has for the continuous efforts of Blue Ridge Sailors in the communities of the 7th Fleet area of responsibility (AOR).

Blue Ridge's Executive Officer Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Ralston, Command Master Chief David Unnone and Operations Officer Lt. Cmdr. Zachary McCarty welcomed the JMSDF officers aboard. Ralston accepted the gift on behalf of Blue Ridge and presented JMSDF with a pair of holiday saplings. Following the exchange of gifts on the quarterdeck, JMSDF was welcomed into the ship's wardroom.

Ralston commented on the continued opportunities between Blue Ridge and the JMSDF.

"Our sister-ship Hatakaze is manned with an exceptional crew. I enjoyed seeing them again and look forward to additional opportunities for professional and personal exchanges between JMSDF and our Navy," Ralston said.

Blue Ridge frequently participates in military exercises and community service events, strengthening regional partnerships in the 7th Fleet AOR. The ship kicked off the year with a patrol to countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia, hosting professional military development exchanges.

Blue Ridge Public Affairs Officer Lt. Clinton Beaird said these types of relationship-building events give extra depth to forward-deployed service.

"Our close partnership with our allies is what makes forward-deployed duty that much more rewarding," Beaird said.

Yeoman 3rd Class randy Sarran recalls the smiles on local people's faces when they interact at community service events. Whether it is helping to build a shelter, providing food and water, or just shaking someone's hand, Sarran believes it allows him the opportunity to give back to the community.

"It really is a wonderful opportunity to volunteer and help out on behalf of this ship," Sarran said.

For Sailors like Sarran, promoting a positive image of today's Navy brought a sense of satisfaction, while for the ship, the wreath exchange amplified the purpose and impact of other community outreach efforts conducted by Blue Ridge throughout the year.

Blue Ridge exhibited this dedicated partnership during Operation Tomodachi, when a magnitude 8.9 earthquake rocked through Japan, leaving massive destruction in its wake.

Blue Ridge responded with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) supplies, and maintained an ever-ready presence, reassuring the Japanese community that Blue Ridge was prepared to support wherever and however she was needed.

Sailors worked into the late hours the initial night of the disaster, loading HA/DR supplies which allowed Blue Ridge to provide critical relief during support operations.

"It gave me a sense of accomplishment to know that the work we did has helped people out," said Fire Controlman 2nd Class Patrick Ramos, who helped load and unload crates of supplies from the flight deck during the HA/DR efforts.

In addition to Operation Tomodachi, Blue Ridge participated alongside Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet in Combined Forces Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011 while visiting Brisbane and Cairns in Australia; and also participated in Exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian 2011 while visiting Busan, Republic of Korea.

Blue Ridge concluded its summer patrol this past summer with a three-day port visit to Noumea, New Caledonia, with a focus to strengthen ties through distinguished visitor tours and community service projects.

Blue Ridge Sailors will wrap up the year with another community service event, where they will visit Shunko Gaken children's orphanage in Yokosuka to hand out gifts and enjoy quality time among the children.

Blue Ridge Command Chaplain, Lt. Donald Baker, said he believes the ship continues to strengthen partnerships with allies by offering help to those in need.

"All over the world, kids are the same," said Baker. "They all want attention, love and affection, so it's very fulfilling to give that to someone who has been deprived of so many things in life. It means a lot to me that we get to serve others and lift them up."

Blue Ridge is commanded by Capt. Daniel Grieco and serves under Commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 7/Task Force 76. Blue Ridge is the command ship for Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet. Task Force 76 is headquartered aboard White Beach Naval Facility, Okinawa Japan with an operations detachment in Sasebo, Japan.
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