A Joint Base Lewis-McChord combat brigade ended its preparations Friday for a nine-month tour to Afghanistan, professing its readiness to return to a country roiled by strained U.S.-Afghan relations and outbursts of violence by soldiers on both sides.
Standing on a parade ground muddied by spring rains, hundreds of family members gathered to watch the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division roll up the unit’s colors at the base south of Tacoma.
The brigade, with some 4,000 soldiers, will soon deploy a second time to Afghanistan and work with local forces to help them take control of their own security as the U.S. mission winds down in the next two years.
“When we return (to Lewis-McChord), I pledge we will return with honor, having expended our energies to protect others,” Col. Barry Huggins, the brigade’s commander, said in brief remarks.
The mission has been complicated by reports of U.S. troops accidentally burning Qurans and by the March 11 massacre of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly carried out by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a soldier on his fourth deployment with a different Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade.
“I heard it’s a little stirred up,” said Sgt. Frankie Cortes, 27, who served with the brigade during its first deployment in 2009-10. “People are not too happy with us. That’s something we’ve got to deal with when we get there.”
Cortes said his unit will serve generally in the same area as before, and he sees an advantage in knowing the geography and the people of southern Afghanistan.
Resentment has led some Afghan troops to turn their weapons on their American counterparts. U.S. military leaders have said these so-called “green on blue” attacks are isolated.
Lt. Col. Patrick Michaelis, who commands the brigade’s cavalry squadron, said he was pleasantly surprised to learn from the unit it’s replacing that Afghan forces have taken the lead in telling civilians that unfortunate episodes involving U.S. troops “are the actions of few, not the actions of the entire coalition.”
He said brigade leaders have spent a lot of time discussing the “green on blue” attacks and concluded most had to do with personality clashes between U.S. and Afghan forces.
Michaelis said the unit “must be engaged in (the Afghans’) lives just as I’ve had my leaders engaged in our soldiers.”
Bonnie Santana said her uneasiness about her son’s deployment was magnified tenfold by this month’s killing spree. She flew from South Bend, Ind., to spend time with her son, Pfc. Donald Dowlut II, 21, before he deploys.
Personal tragedy compounded her worry. Tears ran down her cheeks as she talked about the death of her 16-year-old daughter four years ago.
“It’s extra hard for me,” she said. “He is my only son. You never know what’s going to happen. I’m very proud of him, and I just want him to come back safe.”
Dowlut, however, expressed excitement to serve his country on his first combat tour, saying his unit is well prepared.
“Whatever they throw at us, we’ll come back safe,” he said confidently.
The 2nd Brigade will join about 4,700 Lewis-McChord soldiers already in Afghanistan. Most of those belong to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which deployed in December with roughly half its Stryker soldiers. Its remaining troops arrived in Afghanistan in the last month.
The 2nd Brigade will be the first major unit from Lewis-McChord in which all its soldiers will serve a nine-month deployment instead of the traditional 12 months. The Army shortened the length of tours this year to ease the strain on soldiers and families.
Huggins said less time in combat will be “psychologically easier” for his soldiers. And because they won’t take their traditional two-week home leave, he said there won’t be the “turmoil and turbulence” that results when 10 percent of the force is gone at any one time.
The brigade returned from a tough yearlong deployment in 2010 during which it lost 37 soldiers. The brigade, then called the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, became known for one wayward platoon; four soldiers received prison time for killing Afghans for sport, and several other soldiers were convicted of lesser crimes.
The brigade commander at the time focused on destroying the enemy. An investigation found he minimized Army doctrine that emphasizes the importance of winning the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians.
Huggins has taken the brigade in a new direction, calling his soldiers “protectors” and vowing his unit will “seize the high ground.” The colonel told the gathering Friday that “no human endeavor is free of mistakes” and that war is “perhaps the most fraught of all human endeavors.”
Huggins said afterward he wasn’t referring to 5th Brigade under its previous command. “Anything I say is about me and my unit,” he said. “It’s not in response to another unit.”
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390
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