CAMP HANSEN, OKINAWA, Japan -- Gunnery Sgt. Todd N. Groves started out as a pig farmer in Fulton, Missouri. He performed a variety of manual labor before joining the Marine Corps at age 27. At one point, he drove trucks packed with groceries from coast to coast. He saw mountains, rivers, and everything in between, never imagining that the small island of Okinawa would eventually be a place he’d call home.
“I always tell people home is where you make it,” said Groves. “Home is where the heart is.”
Leaving home is a coming-of-age experience for many service members, but not for the 27 year-old Groves. He was happy and established in his career, trucking around the country from his residence in Missouri. However, when the tragedies of September 11 occurred, he immediately drove to U.S. Marine Corps Recruiting Substation Joplin, Missouri. He dropped everything in that moment to serve his country, never imagining that his time in service would bring him back to his roots on the farm.
Groves’ Marine Corps career has taken him all over the world and given him numerous opportunities to serve. His first duty station was Okinawa. From there, he transferred to California. Since then, he deployed to Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom; Afghanistan, for Operation Enduring Freedom; and even served as a recruiter in Missoula, Montana.
Throughout his career of service, Groves sought a variety of additional opportunities to help his community, through organizations like the Red Cross and Toys for Tots. His desire to serve led him to the opportunity to farm in Okinawa.
“I would drive around and I would see farmers out in the countryside,” said Groves, recalling the beginning of his second tour here, in September 2014. “I would see numerous people working and I’d think, ‘I’m a strong guy, I bet those guys need help.’”
Groves, a maintenance chief with Small Craft Repair Platoon, Expeditionary Operations Training Group, III Marine Expeditionary Force, began to search for an opportunity to return to farming. A few months later, Marine Corps Community Services introduced him to Bokusei Kinjo, a local farmer who inherited a farmer’s market from his father 22 years ago. Since the two met, Dec. 4, 2014, they have been working together.
Groves knows the hard work involved in running a farm. He dedicates all of his free time to tending the pineapple garden, banana trees, and a variety of other plants there. He feeds pigs, goats, and rabbits, and helps Kinjo build makeshift facilities to store food and livestock.
“I volunteer on holidays,” added Groves. “If I have a (three or four-day weekend), I’m usually out there on his farm.”
Kinjo said he notices Groves’ hard work, noting that Groves willingly performs difficult manual labor whenever called upon.
“He is a nice guy,” said Kinjo. “Any type of job I tell him to do, he knows how to do it. I’m very happy. My family is too.”
After spending countless hours working the land, sharing cherished moments, and laughing over numerous family dinners, Groves and Kinjo have become more than fellow farmers. They have become a part of each other’s lives. Groves, who now refers to Kinjo as Oto-san, or father figure, extended his tour of duty here from two years to four because of the relationship they’ve built.
“I would really miss Okinawa if I were to leave now,” said Groves.
Already, Groves has volunteered approximately 1,000 hours, primarily serving alongside Kinjo. Groves was recommended for the Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, but he expressed no interest in receiving recognition for what he sees simply as helping a family member.
“I’m not looking forward to leaving,” said Groves. “Bokusei and his family have taken me into their home and made me feel warm and welcome. It’s been rewarding to work with him.”
While roughly 29,000 U.S. military members are stationed on the island of Okinawa to uphold the U.S.-Japan Alliance, Gunnery Sgt. Todd Groves, a former farmer from middle America, is planting roots with a little hard work and cultivating lifelong relationships.