With an eye turned to the challenges of the Pacific Rim, a veteran Army officer who led one of the first Stryker brigades in the Iraq War returned to the South Sound Tuesday and took command of more than 35,000 soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Lt. Gen. Robert Brown relieved outgoing Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who last month completed a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan with Lewis-McChord’s I Corps. Scaparrotti is headed to the Pentagon, where he will be director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As the war in Afghanistan draws down, the Army wants Brown to make two important pivots for the I Corps, one overseas and one at home.
One change will come at Lewis-McChord this fall when the Army reactivates the 7th Infantry Division. Led by a two-star general, the division will provide more oversight and guidance for the base’s five combat brigades. That layer of management has been missing as the Army’s ranks in the South Sound nearly doubled since 2003.
“It’s a tremendous move. I can’t believe how much the base has grown,” said Brown, who last served here in 2005. “We definitely need a division headquarters.”
The other shift will call on Brown to return the I Corps to its traditional focus on the Pacific Rim, a mission that has been set aside for much of the past decade because of more pressing needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We look forward to turning the focus to the Pacific region as America’s Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McChord will have a historic role in that shift,” Brown said in his welcome remarks on Watkins Field.
Lewis-McChord today has more soldiers than ever fighting in Afghanistan. Some 10,000 troops from the base south of Tacoma are stationed there, mostly in the volatile southern province of Kandahar.
The ranks of soldiers on Lewis-McChord’s parade grounds Tuesday reflected those deployments. Several units, such as the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, were represented with small contingents because the rest are deployed.
Brown said the base will continue to prepare for missions in Afghanistan with thousands more soldiers due to go there late this fall. But he said Lewis-McChord likely will be tapped for more work in the Pacific following President Obama’s call to redirect the nation’s military focus to that region.
Lewis-McChord is the nation’s largest military installation on the West Coast, and its history includes extensive fighting in the Korean War.
“If something happens in the Pacific, we would be the force of choice,” Brown said.
Scaparrotti similarly said the I Corps would focus on the Pacific when he took command of soldiers here in October 2010. Instead, the Army announced his deployment in January 2011 and the general fixed his attention on Afghanistan, where he was the No. 2 American commander.
Plans for Lewis-McChord soldiers to go on joint exercises with allies in Japan and India were scrapped. They’ll be revived if the Pacific focus re-emerges the way Brown described. Exercises in Indonesia and South Korea may also be scheduled.
The Army sent several signals that it was serious about Pacific concerns at Brown’s change-of-command ceremony. Army Pacific Command leader Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski was among the guests, as were delegates from the South Korean and Japanese consulates in Seattle.
Brown’s background also lends weight to that new direction. He has served under the Pacific Command in Hawaii in various roles in the 1990s and after his assignment at Fort Lewis in 2005.
Scaparrotti, by contrast, brought a background steeped in Iraq and Afghanistan experience when he arrived at Lewis-McChord 21 months ago.
Brown was stationed at Fort Lewis from 2002-05. He led the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in Iraq from 2004-05. The brigade was later reassigned to Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
He said he looks forward to spending time in civilian communities around the base.
“Folks here want to support the military,” he said. “We need to show them how.”