Spc. Rey Prieto’s family can’t visit him at his base in southern Afghanistan, but they’re putting enough miles on their sneakers to simulate walking to him and bringing him a home-cooked meal.
In fact, the Prietos walked so many miles since he deployed with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker Brigade last winter, they might make the equivalent of a round trip to Kabul by the time he returns.
They’re among hundreds of people connected to Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division participating in the Walk to Afghanistan to keep their hearts and minds connected to the war while loved ones serve overseas. They follow Marine and Army units around the country who have sponsored other Walks to Afghanistan for the past several years.
The distance – Kabul sits some 6,700 miles from Tacoma – seemed unimaginable at first. Now the Stryker brigade families are running laps around that goal.
The Prietos combined for more than 7,200 miles with 18 relatives tracking the distance in Texas and in the South Sound. The soldier’s nephews propelled the team with long hours at football practice this summer.
“I was just happy to get there,” Spc. Prieto’s wife, Michelle, said at a Saturday walking event at Lewis-McChord. “The boys want to double it.”
At the base, Army families say walking gives them a way to stay in shape and cope with a deployment’s stress. Sometimes they make new friends at monthly walking events, such as one the brigade hosted Saturday.
“I’m with a lot of women and they’re going through the same thing,” Michelle Prieto said. “I don’t get that pity thing you get from civilians.”
Instead, Prieto found motivation from Army families at Lewis-McChord who were making similar sacrifices to support loved ones in combat.
Deployments are “not sad,” she said. “You’re just separated.”
The 3rd Brigade’s year in Afghanistan spanned the February burning of copies of the Koran at Bagram Air Base, which sparked violence across the country, and the March killings of 16 civilians in Kandahar Province, which threatened support for the war at home.
Those killings allegedly were perpetrated by 3rd Brigade Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, formerly of Lake Tapps, who’s awaiting a court-martial and possible death penalty. The massacre focused the attention of the national media on Lewis-McChord’s military families in general and the 3rd Brigade in particular.
“There’s been a lot of bad times, but I can say this has been the best support group I’ve ever had in the military,” said Jennifer Soika. Her husband, Lt. Col. Steven Soika, leads about 700 soldiers in the brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
Soika’s battalion makes up about one-fifth of the brigade’s 3,500 soldiers. The battalion led the way in deploying first to one of Kandahar Province’s more hostile districts, and it accounts for five of the brigade’s 11 fatal casualties.
Its families are in the lead in the brigade’s friendly competition to Walk to Afghanistan. On Saturday, Jennifer Soika and other spouses from her husband’s battalion wore white T-shirts that read, “I’m on my way.” The battalion’s crossed musket logo was emblazoned on their backs.
Some women racked up their miles by joining a Zumba class on the parade ground. Every 30 minutes of aerobic exercise counts for three miles, and some women preferred the Colombian dance-styled Zumba to walking laps.
Caroline Webster, wife of 3rd Brigade commander Col. Charles Webster, usually prefers to run, but she joined the Zumba group Saturday. She liked how Walk to Afghanistan compelled her to think about the war regularly instead of getting “caught up in your day.”
“Because of this program, I consciously think about our soldiers and pray for them,” she said.
Lauren Meyer, 30, stood out in the group Saturday with a baby on her back and two at her front, sitting it a tandem stroller. This is the second deployment for her husband, Capt. John Meyer, but the first for the Meyers with children at home.
Having young children raises the stakes. Lauren worries more than she did on her husband’s first tour, five years ago. Their two boys, ages 3 and 4, ask several times a day when Daddy’s coming home.
They broke up the deployment with monthly visits from family members around the country and kept a paper chain representing every week of John Meyer’s deployment as a company commander in Soika’s battalion. They take out a link every week.
“I thought it would get easier,” Lauren Meyer said. “But it’s still every day.”
About 20 relatives from the South Sound to the East Coast have joined them in doing the Walk to Afghanistan. They’ve found that walking in small groups in civilian communities helps remind neighbors and strangers that America is still at war nearly 11 years after it toppled the Taliban.
“They were eager,” Lauren Meyer said. “They felt like they were supporting John. This is a way to be an active participant.”
The 3rd Brigade expects to return home in full by Christmas. It is to be replaced in Afghanistan by Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
That leaves four months at most for Michelle Prieto’s nephews in Texas to finish that trip to Kabul and back.
She’s nudging the boys along, holding out a home-cooked, three-course meal as an incentive to whichever side of her family goes the greatest distance.
“They love it,” she said. “They’re all fired up.”