Fort Lewis 5th Brigade almost ready for battle
The Army’s seventh and final Stryker brigade is in the home stretch of its buildup to enter the U.S. fighting forces.
When that’s done, it will be the fourth Stryker unit built at Fort Lewis.
And it will further cement the reputation of the medium-weight, highly mobile combat brigades. They faced skepticism from no less than then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – doubts that were quickly overcome after the original brigade left Fort Lewis five years ago for the proving grounds of Iraq.
Though all this may be a milestone, soldiers with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division have their sights set on what’s likely to come next: a yearlong combat tour.
“I don’t see a finish line,” Lt. Col. Dennis Smith, who commands the brigade’s artillery battalion, said of these last few months until the brigade is certified as combat-ready.
“The finish line is reset after deployment,” he said last week. “Anything less is a disappointment to me.”
The Army hasn’t made an official announcement, but the 5th Brigade is expected to be in the mix for duty in the Middle East in the latter half of next year.
In the meantime, over the last 18 months, it has grown from a skeleton crew of a few hundred soldiers to a nearly fully staffed brigade of 3,400 that’s equipped with much of the Army’s latest fighting gear.
“We started two years ago with almost nothing,” said the top noncommissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Prosser.
Now the unit expects to arrive at “full operating capability” a little ahead of its February deadline.
This past week troops wrapped up their last major home-based exercise, with war games that had Strykers stretched from Fort Lewis to the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot in Eastern Oregon to the Yakima Training Center.
The final evaluation comes in January at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., high in the Mojave Desert.
The Army created the Stryker brigades as an alternative between heavy armored formations and light infantry units.
Beginning in 2000, Fort Lewis developed the first, second and fourth brigades named for their signature eight-wheeled armored vehicles. The three other brigades were built in Alaska, Hawaii and Pennsylvania.
All of the Fort Lewis Stryker brigades have deployed to Iraq – two of them twice.
Being the last of the seven brigades to undergo the transformation to Strykers has had “more pluses than minuses,” said the 5th Brigade commander, Col. Harry Tunnell.
On the down side, his soldiers are still waiting for some critical weapons systems – the new Stryker Mobile Gun System, for instance, and new lightweight howitzers.
He said the unit’s leaders and soldiers have had the benefit of the experiences of the three other brigades built at Fort Lewis, and the post’s status as the Army’s repository of all things Stryker.
“There have been some great lessons learned and collaboration,” Tunnell said.
For the just-completed exercise, the brigade picked up on training that previous brigades have used to prepare for typical missions in Iraq.
A battalion traveled 300 miles to Umatilla, refueling en route, and then conducted a mock attack immediately on arrival. “Strykers are famous for long, rapid moves, so that’s what we’ve done,” Tunnell said.
Another unit en route to Yakima was detoured to the state firefighter training center near Issaquah for a mock downed-aircraft drill. The brigade’s cavalry squadron reconnoitered both routes.
“This is the only way our brigade logistics can really be tested,” Tunnell said. “These are things we have to do in Iraq, but that are really hard to do in the United States.”
Like previous Stryker brigades, the 5th Brigade has put dozens of its troops through intensive, 10-month Arabic language training. They were tested in exercises last month where they had to help their commanders negotiate with native-speaker role players at Fort Lewis’ urban training center, Leschi Town.
Tunnell has added his own adaptations as well. He sent senior sergeants to intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., so that each of his infantry companies could do more analysis work that would typically be done at the battalion level, further up the chain of command.
And to give his companies more know-how when it comes to bargaining with the mukhtars and sheiks they’ll encounter in Iraq, he sent senior sergeants for training in the art of negotiation.
Tunnell also turned to the Puyallup Fire Department for help in a program to improve his soldiers’ skills at fighting fires and removing injured people from damaged vehicles, like at the scene of a car accident.
And the brigade has practiced one particular set of procedures over and over again: what to do if a soldier goes missing.
Tunnell said he owes it to all the soldiers in the brigade and to their loved ones back home.
That focus was born out of his own experiences on his last deployment to Iraq, when he commanded the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment and jumped into northern Iraq in March 2003.
He was wounded in an ambush that October south of Kirkuk.
“I was lying shot in a ditch once and some brave kids came for me,” Tunnell said. “Nobody gets left behind.”
DRAWING FROM MANY SOURCES
The Army doesn’t measure such things, but on the face of it, the 5th Brigade seems to have drawn its soldiers from an unusually wide variety of other units.
“We were pieced together from all over the Army,” said Capt. Eric Schwartz, a company commander in the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment who previously served in Afghanistan and Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division.
It may be because the 5th Brigade was formed from scratch, unlike the other six Stryker brigades, which were all converted from existing units.
In the days after the 5th was formed in early 2007, lieutenants and captains filled brigade and battalion staff positions that normally are occupied by higher-ranking officers. It made for long days and steep learning curves, said Smith, the artillery battalion commander.
Now with the brigade close to full strength, “we’ve been training almost nonstop since January – almost nonstop in the field,” Schwartz said.
The brigade will be outfitted with the Land Warrior System, a wearable computer and communications system that allows soldiers to communicate via the Internet, track their location and track their comrades via a drop-down eyepiece mounted on their helmet.
The Army cut funding for the program just as one battalion in another Stryker brigade – the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – was training to use the system in Iraq. It was viewed as too expensive, too bulky and too buggy. But that Fort Lewis battalion sought permission to bring it to Iraq anyway.
Based on the results, the Land Warrior program has been revived and now is being dispersed among the entire 5th Brigade.
‘IT’S A CHALLENGE’
Unlike the previous Stryker brigades, the 5th Brigade has an artillery battalion that will get Stryker vehicles to complement its armored Humvees.
It’s a reflection of the fact that artillery soldiers in Iraq have more often had to leave their big guns behind and operate like infantrymen.
So Tunnell reassigned nine of the Strykers from the brigade’s anti-tank company and shifted them to Smith’s artillery battalion.
That means the gunners have had to train on their 155 mm howitzers as well as on infantry tactics and techniques.
“It’s a challenge, but these guys enjoy doing both,” said Smith. “They enjoy putting rounds down range, but they enjoy doing that infantry stuff, kicking down doors.”
‘WE DID IT’
Capt. Eric Schwartz is likely one of the most experienced company commanders in the new brigade.
Other units he served with in Iraq and Afghanistan adapted to conditions on the ground.
“We did it, but we figured it out as we went,” he said.
In the 5th Brigade, on the other hand, they’re taking some of the changes learned in combat from the other Stryker brigades and blending them into the unit’s basic way of doing business before they ever leave.
For example, they’re taking into account the likelihood that some of their infantry companies will be pulled out of the brigade and assigned to work for some other command – just like previous Stryker infantry companies have done consistently in Iraq.
Each of the 12 infantry companies in the 5th Brigade was removed from its regular chain of command and, for its final readiness test, forced to work for a different headquarters.
Those are the kinds of lessons that come with waiting at the back of the line, No. 7 in a series of seven Stryker deployments.
“To me, now,” said Schwartz, a veteran of two combat tours, “this is better than the preparations we had for other deployments.”
Michael Gilbert: 253-597-8921