JBLM units can expect tough duty
It could be a long summer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The installation south of Tacoma has more soldiers fighting in dangerous places than it’s had at any time over the past two years. Already, it has seen 12 fatalities in 2012 – two more than in all of 2011 – including the death of a combat engineer announced Thursday.
Such is the nature of the war in Afghanistan, where fighting remains intense, even as U.S. forces and NATO allies turn their eyes to withdrawing most of their forces in the next two years.
Casualty reports are rippling through the military and veteran community in the Puget Sound, uniting families who know the feeling of having a loved one in harm’s way.
Andrea Velasquez Kessler told the Everett Herald she argued with her son about his decision to enter the military. Lt. Travis Morgado grew up in Edmonds and joined the Army in 2010. He died in Afghanistan on May 23, and was recognized at a memorial at Lewis-McChord this week.
“It’s the mantra I’ve been saying since the moment I found out: He was doing what he wanted to do,” Kessler told The Herald.
This spring and summer, Lewis-McChord has 9,300 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. That’s only about half as many as were deployed in 2009-10, the local base’s busiest year for combat tours, when 18,000 soldiers were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the exposure is greater this time because the fight has shifted to the more violent country.
Most Lewis-McChord soldiers overseas two years ago were stationed in Iraq, where combat had declined significantly. Lewis- McChord’s two Stryker brigades in Iraq that year lost more soldiers to noncombat accidents than they did to enemy attacks.
The Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade in Afghanistan that year, by contrast, lost 37 soldiers.
Afghanistan remains a dangerous and uncertain battleground. Its politics are murky and sometimes corrupt, making progress unclear to the American public. Taliban fighters continue to assault NATO and Afghan forces with deadly mines in the south. In the east on the Pakistan border, an insurgency is well established.
Lewis-McChord commanders returning home this week from a year running the war’s day-to-day operations said they witnessed progress, especially with increased capabilities of Afghan security forces. They saw weakened Taliban ranks and a degraded insurgency over the past year.
“We’re just now beginning to turn things over to the Afghans,” Lewis-McChord’s I Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said at his homecoming ceremony Wednesday. He was the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan for the past year.
Scaparrotti acknowledged that the drawdown likely will take place under more violent conditions than U.S. forces faced in Iraq at a similar point in that war.
U.S. casualties overall are slightly down from last year, but not enough to suggest calm summer months ahead.
Lewis-McChord has two front-line Stryker brigades in Afghanistan, as well as components of its military police, artillery, battlefield surveillance and combat engineer brigades.
The Stryker brigades – the 3rd brigade and 2nd brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division – have about 7,500 soldiers between them. They are mostly fighting in Kandahar, the southern province known as the birthplace of the Taliban.
“Both the 2-2 and the 3-2 are in highly volatile areas where there are plenty of Taliban fighters, but they’re taking the fight to the enemy,” said I Corps Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, who also returned from Afghanistan this week.
More South Sound soldiers are on the way to the war. Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is in California this month training to go to Afghanistan late this year.
And the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment is a month from its next deployment. That special operations unit has carried out 14 combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq since 2002.
Its most recent mission there saw the deaths of four well-regarded Rangers. One of them was Staff Sgt. Kristoffer Domeij, who fought on 14 previous deployments.
Their leaders at a change-of-command ceremony last week recognized the sacrifices of soldiers like Domeij as they set their sights on their next deployment.
“If America is looking for victory or a way out of Afghanistan, whether it knows it or not, it is looking to the men before you,” 75th Ranger Regiment commander Col. Mark Odom said as he looked out to the ranks of Rangers on Lewis-McChord’s parade field.
FAMILIES REACH OUT
Outside the local base, families of wounded soldiers are reaching out to each other on social networking websites. The Pentagon does not name wounded soldiers. It’s up to the families to tell their communities as much as they want to reveal.
“Keep praying for the warriors that are still out there,” Spc. Josh Wetzel of the 3rd Brigade wrote from Walter Reed Military Medical Center last week. He lost his legs to an enemy mine in late May. He’s been communicating with thousands of people on Facebook.
“I want all of you to look at my situation and see how powerful our God is,” he wrote to them beneath a photo of him smiling in recovery. He has had at least seven surgeries since he was wounded in Kandahar Province.
To remember fallen soldiers, more than 100 people are showing up on Saturdays at DuPont’s Powderworks Park as part of a group called Wear Blue Run to Remember.
The group came together in 2010 during what was a difficult deployment for Lewis-McChord’s hard-hit Stryker brigade in Afghanistan.
Wear Blue Lewis-McChord chapter president Rachel Elizalde, 37, of Renton sometimes sees newcomers approach the group quietly. They may whisper the name of a fallen soldier during the period before each run when participants call out the names of the friends and loved ones they lost to war.
The newcomers open up “when they realize we’re there as a support network,” Elizalde said.
She lost her brother, Sgt. 1st Class Adrian Elizalde of Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group. He was killed in Iraq in 2007, the bloodiest year of that war. A total of 904 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq that year, including four from her brother’s elite unit.
She and her brother were buddies. He lived with her before he deployed from Lewis-McChord.
Only recently, Rachel Elizalde has found, “I don’t have to live in a fog. I can be happy that this person lived.”
Adam Ashton adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com