We have all heard that “tragedies make us stronger.” In reality, we become stronger because of the teammates that come forward to bolster and support us in a crisis.

On Nov. 29, 2023, when we lost “GUNDAM 22,” a CV-22 Osprey with eight air commandos aboard, we witnessed the incredible support from our allies and partners, joint teammates and communities across the globe in the days, weeks and months that followed.

The mission of GUNDAM 22 was one the U.S. military executes daily, supporting U.S.-Japanese defense and upholding our treaty obligations to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. What began as a flight supporting a joint interoperability exercise turned into a day we will never forget: when GUNDAM 22 experienced a catastrophic component failure and crashed into the water near Yakushima, Japan.

For more than 40 days, the Japan Coast Guard, Japan Self-Defense Forces, local law enforcement and Japanese civilian volunteers worked tirelessly alongside personnel from across all branches of the U.S. Department of Defense conducting search, rescue, recovery and salvage operations.

The very first responders to the crash site were local Japanese fishermen who exemplified the essence of our military culture — selflessness in a moment of crisis. They weren’t alone. Local government officials quickly joined the effort. The rapid and seamless collaboration across search, rescue and recovery was a powerful testament to the strength of the United States-Japan alliance.

The Yakushima community responded with open arms providing meals, accommodations and whatever assistance was necessary. In the weeks following the crash, Japanese consulates across the United States flew their flags at half-staff in a symbol of solidarity, and consuls general grieved alongside us at funerals for our air commandos in California, Ohio, Minnesota, Florida and Massachusetts. These gestures of hospitality, kindness and respect for the sacrifice of our fallen underline what makes our alliance special.

The deep bonds that connect our joint force were also on display around the globe. More than 1,000 personnel from all military services, 46 aircraft, 23 maritime vessels and 21 unmanned aerial and underwater systems searched more than 60,000 square kilometers of the ocean’s surface and 39 square kilometers of the ocean floor to find our airmen and the Osprey.

Japanese and American divers from the Navy, Army and Air Force recovered seven of our eight air commandos, allowing us to return them to their families to be laid to rest across the United States. The teams gave everything they had searching for our final crew member, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Salvage experts recovered over 90% of the aircraft from 100 feet of water, enabling critical and thorough investigations to prevent future mishaps.

Troops found ways to pay tribute to GUNDAM 22, wherever they were serving. Tributes poured in, from humanitarian air drops in the South Pacific dedicated to the crew of GUNDAM 22, to a memorial ruck march in West Africa, where deployed personnel marched to honor our fallen teammates.

In small towns and big cities across the United States, friends, families, community leaders and grateful Americans welcomed our fallen heroes home, lining highways and roads. Displays of kindness in every corner of the country were a powerful testament to the enduring appreciation of the sacrifices made in service to our great nation. The communities of those affected by the loss, and the many networks created to support the families of so many we’ve lost over 20 years of combat operations, reached out and wrapped their arms around the family members of GUNDAM 22.

In this journey of tragedy and resilience, these acts have reminded me of the power of our alliances and partnerships, the power of our joint force, and the power of our communities at home and around the globe. It reminded us all why strong teams are absolutely essential and why we must cultivate and preserve these important relationships. We are stronger together, and by working in partnership, we can overcome monumental challenges.

I often tell air commandos that we stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. Those who responded to GUNDAM 22 are now woven into our AFSOC legacy. As we continue to move forward, providing support to the families of GUNDAM 22 and all impacted by this tragedy, I am grateful for our allies, our joint teammates and our communities that have helped us through this loss. Through the power of teamwork and collaboration, we have been able to navigate this tragedy and come out stronger on the other side.

Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind served as the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command from December 2022 to July 2024.

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