Less than a day after a 61-year-old Japanese citizen was killed when a Marine collided with his car in Okinawa, U.S. Forces Japan announced that it was cutting off local liberty for all troops in the region and prohibiting the consumption of alcohol until further notice.
As Military.com's Hope Hodge Sack reports, the deadly crash occurred around 5:30 a.m. local time Sunday in Naha, Okinawa. According to Associated Press reports, a Marine driving a truck collided with a smaller truck at an intersection, killing the Japanese driver. The AP reported the Marine, who came away with slight injuries, had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit at the time of the incident.
Military officials have not identified the service member or publicly identified the individual as a Marine.
The commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, released a statement saying that Marine officials were still gathering the facts and would work with Japanese authorities to investigate the causes of the accident.
"I would like to convey my deepest regret and sincere condolences to the family and friends of the Okinawan man who died as a result of this accident," Nicholson said. " ... You have my promise that I will rigorously work to determine the cause of the incident, and take every possible step to keep this from happening again."
In the meantime, off-base privileges for troops in Okinawa had been suspended until further notice.
"Marines, Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen must return to quarters and cease consuming alcohol effective immediately. Alcohol consumption and alcohol sales stop for all US Forces until further notice," an announcement from III MEF officials, posted to the command's official Facebook page Sunday, read. "Off base liberty is NOT permitted in Okinawa."
Troops with authorized leave are now required to leave Okinawa to take it.
This stringent liberty policy is the most restrictive of the three tiers imposed on Okinawa in accordance with operational requirements. According to the 2016 liberty order published by U.S. Forces Japan, this level of restriction "may be driven by a [foreign criminal jurisdiction] incident that threatens host nation basing and/or the U.S. ability to complete its operational mission."
It's far from the first time that liberty or alcohol consumption has been curtailed after an off-base incident involving a service member in Okinawa. It is almost a routine step following a high-profile incident involving U.S. troops. And in 2016 alone, there were at least three such incidents.
In June 2016, a Navy petty officer was arrested for injuring three locals in a drunk driving incident in which she drove the wrong way down a street and crashed into two cars.
Prior to that, in March 2016, a Navy seaman apprentice was charged with raping a Japanese woman while under the influence of alcohol.
The current incident comes with especially bad timing for U.S. military officials, taking place on the same week as the murder trial for Kenneth Franklin Gadson Shinzato, a Marine veteran who was working as a civilian employee at Kadena Air Base. He is accused of murdering a 20-year-old Okinawan woman, Rina Shimabukuro, on April 28, 2016, and disposing of her body. The trial is ongoing in Naha.
In December 2016, Nicholson signed a new "Drugged and Drunk Driving Awareness and Prevention Campaign" designed to curtail the prevalence of service members driving under the influence.
"I can tell you that although the numbers are down this year, we still will not rest. We will continue to work very, very hard because one is too many, and we have an obligation to ourselves and to the citizens of Okinawa to eliminate all cases of drinking and driving," Nicholson said, according to a Stars and Stripes report.
More than 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Okinawa. The vast majority of them are Marines.