Staff Sgt. Miller provides translation between the brigade staff officers of the U.S. Army’s 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division and 34th Infantry Regiment of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force during preparations for the opening ceremony of exercise Orient Shield 2017 at Camp Fuji, Japan. This was the first time Miller was tasked to support a bi-lateral exercise with Japanese forces as a translator. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Lucas Miller)
YAKIMA TRAINING CENTER, Washington -- Staff Sgt. Lucas Miller is not officially an Army translator. The motor transportation operator from 109th Transportation Company, 17th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, never trained at the Defense Language Institute. Miller was asked for by name to deploy from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska to the Yakima Training Center in Washington to facilitate communication between the U.S. Army and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force during a bi-lateral training exercise.
“I really didn’t want to go at first,” said Miller, citing the desire to spend more time with his wife of ten years and their new 11-month-old daughter. “But I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for such a unique experience.”
At 36 years old with 12 years in the military, Miller started taking the Defense Language Proficiency Test while he was a specialist to earn points towards promotion. Miller said he never thought he would need to speak anything other than English for the Army.
For most of his career, that was true, even with four different duty stations, and deployments to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. It wasn’t until he came to US Army Alaska that someone noticed the designator for speaking Japanese on his military records and decided to put it to use.
Miller was asked to serve as a translator for exercise Orient Shield held in Japan in 2017. While he is half-Japanese and can speak the language fluently, he primarily uses it while speaking to his family. He soon discovered conversational languages are not the same as military languages.
During the exercise, Miller translated the languages during the more casual or basic conversations, but struggled when it came to the more jargon-filled lingo of both military forces.
“I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my inability to smoothly communicate in a language I’ve known all my life,” said Miller. “I translated most of it the best I could, but a lot of times I would have to use four or five words just to describe one thing.”
Miller didn’t give up though, he just started taking notes.
“I wrote everything down in a notebook and by the time I had gotten back it had so much information in it,” Miller said while holding his fingers in the air about an inch and a half apart to simulate how thick the notebook is. “When I got back I began to transfer it onto notecards and had them laminated so I can refer to them in the field. I constantly learn new terms wherever I go.”
That dedication to keep learning new aspects of a language he grew up using allows him to become a better translator. The ability to quickly translate military commands and directions is not only useful, but crucial, Miller said.
In the top of Millers patrol cap is a pair of silver wings surrounding a parachute with a small “FF” lapel affixed to the top. Last June, Miller participated in the Arctic Aurora training by providing translations during the first annual jump with the 1st Airborne Brigade of the JGDSF.
The jumpmaster on that flight gave Miller the Japanese Free Fall Parachutist badge, after Miller translated the instructions from the American pilot in the cockpit to the Japanese Soldiers ready to drop 13,000 feet through the open sky.
“They put those jumpers lives in my hands,” Miller said while gently rubbing the shiny badge inside his cap. “I keep this as a reminder of what I accomplished and how important it is.”
He learned Japanese as a child while attending Japanese public school. He eventually left to receive an American education and attended high school in Hawaii, living with an aunt and uncle. He still spent summers in Japan with his parents until college.
Miller, whose mother is Japanese and father is American, comes from a family of military service on both sides. His father is a U.S. Marine who became an English teacher in Japan upon retirement. His great uncle served in the U.S. Army’s storied 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Both of his grandfathers fought in the Pacific Campaign during World War II; his paternal grandfather enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps 1st Marine Division and his maternal grandfather served as an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army. While both men survived the war, Miller jokes that had they ever met, he likely would not exist.
When Miller talks about growing up in Japan as a young child, the conversation is peppered with stories of racial discrimination.
“The other kids would kick and punch me just because I was mixed-race and not full Japanese,” said Miller. “So when I went to Hawaii for high school and almost everyone was from different cultures and race, I really felt like I had found a home there.”
The Soldiers of Japan and the United States were once at odds, but now, they are part of a strong partnership that is key to the security and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.
Rising Thunder 18 will be Miller’s fifth assignment as a translator. This battalion-level exercise between the U.S. Army and JGDSF focuses on key training requirements for both forces to improve their overall readiness.
What was once a factor of discrimination against Miller in his young life has now become one of his most valuable assets.
“When you have a mission where there are multiple languages involved,” said Lt. Col Donald R. Neal Jr., commander, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, “your linguists become your critical enablers if not your center of gravity to make sure things go successfully.”
Neal said Miller allows the unit to have a shared understanding with their Japanese counterparts.
“The one-seventeenth took me in and made me feel comfortable,” Miller said, with the hints of a Hawaiian Pidgin accent still heard in his English. “That’s a big thing. This has been a really special trip for me.”
While the units are building partnerships on the range, they also find opportunities to build relationships off the range and learn about each other’s culture and combined history. Annually the Nisei Veterans Committee comes to observe the training at YTC and hosts a luncheon at the NVC Memorial Hall in Seattle to
educate the community and our Soldiers about the history of our two nations.
Soldiers got a chance to explore the museums and interact with Asian-American Veteran’s, learning about our countries shared history. For Staff Sgt. Miller it was a little more personal. Outside the hall, stands a 12-foot high by 190-foot long wall, lined with the names of Asian-Americans who were interned in camps or served in the U.S. Military during WWII. Among the 3,500 black bricks with white engraved lettering, Staff Sgt. Miller found the name of his great uncle whom his family had mostly lost contact with.
“I never knew this was here.” Miller said, “All my times visiting Seattle and I never even knew this was here.”
Miller said he plans to carry on the family tradition of retiring from the military. Miller’s currently pursuing a degree in athletic sports education but has different careers goals in mind after retirement that will leverage his transporting knowledge and his skilled Japanese translation skills.
“With all my training in logistics and transportation and my ability to speak English and Japanese, I want to get into an international shipping business,” he said with that slight Hawaiian accent. “I want to take everything the Army has taught me and put it to use, you know.”