An Alternative Construct for Solutions 

Four-Star Admiral Patrick Walsh reflects on Operation Tomodachi, U.S.-Japan relationship, and Fletcher experience 
Admiral Walsh stands in front of awards and citations he has received from the Japanese government.

Patrick Walsh F93 FG99, United States Navy Four-Star Admiral, sees remarkable contrast between his military experience and the one he had as a student at The Fletcher School. During a recent celebration for Fletcher’s 90th anniversary in Tokyo, he reminisced on his time in Medford. 

“I was on campus for my dissertation defense, and the following day I was trying to land an F-14,” said Walsh.  

He first learned about Fletcher while serving in the U.S. Navy. During a White House Fellowship, when he was working in the Office of Management and Budget and sitting in on public hearings, he realized how important it was for him to develop the discipline required by higher education. Walsh came to Fletcher through a program with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which provided opportunities for service members to study in civilian institutions. He completed his MALD while active duty and continued his studies through the PhD program.  

While toggling between his education and military service may have engaged different parts of his mind, the twining of these two experiences proved foundational, fundamentally transforming his approach to service.  

Japan-U.S. Partnership: A Case Study  

In the wake of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and nuclear disaster, Walsh directed the U.S. response, Operation Tomodachi. Quickly, he recognized that his team would need the best solutions the world could offer.  

“In my nearly 35 years of service in operations and deployments around the world, I had never experienced anything close to what we witnessed in the days that followed the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake,” said Walsh. 

Walsh found that the openness with which he approached his studies at Fletcher proved mission-critical in Japan. 

Under Operation Tomodachi, the USS Ronald Reagan strike group joined forces with numerous government ministries, agencies, and troops in a unified effort to provide relief to the people and communities affected by the triple disasters.  

“The complexity and scope of the humanitarian and radiological challenge required innovative solutions, so we organized our work for unity of effort and established a Joint Support Force,” said Walsh. “We needed integrative solutions among the multiple services, ministries, agencies, and organizations.”  

Operation Tomodachi played a significant role in redefining the relationship between the U.S. and Japan. The Japan Times reported, “a day of tragedy can now also be seen as one that set in motion a broad and important shift for the Self-Defense Forces and the country’s alliance with the United States.” 

“I saw that to be an impactful contributor, it took the kind of discipline carried and represented inside the PhD program,” Walsh said. 

Challenging Status Quo Thinking  

For Walsh, the intellectual rigor and curiosity he developed in the PhD program provided him with the outlook needed to lead Operation Tomodachi. 

“What I took from Fletcher was the importance of questions,” he said. “Rather than trying to just reach back in history and find the answer, there was a practical implication with the whole program that forced you to be adept on your feet.” 

During his keynote address in Tokyo, Walsh enumerated the values of graduate education and research.  

“By design, the exercise challenges conventional thinking and practice,” he said. “The exercise generates confidence for the student to think independently and critically by the weight of their argument and the contribution they made to the academy.” 

“We had the benefit of independent, critical thinkers representing every discipline involved in our humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and consequence management mission in Japan,” he added. “If the investment continues in graduate education, we will continue to have critical thinkers in the future force who will have the background and skills to land on their feet in crises and create solutions to problems that no one had ever imagined.”