Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s newest general took command Wednesday, pledging to care for soldiers as they return from Afghanistan while reorienting the Army’s focus in the South Sound to the nation’s challenges on the Pacific Rim.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza will oversee that shift as the leader of the newly reactivated 7th Infantry Division. It’s a command that gives him authority over nearly 18,000 soldiers in Lewis-McChord’s Stryker, aviation and artillery brigades.
About 8,000 soldiers in his division are in Afghanistan today. Another 4,000 are preparing to go there this fall.
Lanza said they’ll return home to different demands than they’ve known in the past 11 years of frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. His job will center on providing them with resources to adjust to life at home and to their changing assignments.
“To those we ask much, we owe much,” Lanza said. “As leaders of the 7th Infantry Division, we must provide clear guidance, the tools and resources necessary for our soldiers to execute their tasks, and a high degree of care that is befitting our dedicated warriors.”
The ceremony that marked the activation of his division concluded six months of work to build the command at Lewis-McChord.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced in April that the division would be reactivated at the base to give Lewis-McChord a traditional Army command structure. It fills a missing layer of management that is standard at the Army’s other largest posts.
The Army last had a division headquarters at then-Fort Lewis in 1991.
McHugh’s announcement followed a bad run of news for Lewis-McChord, including the March slaying of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly at the hands of one of its Stryker soldiers, and a string of war crimes in 2010 in which members of a Stryker platoon killed three Afghan noncombatants during patrols in Kandahar province.
Some defense experts at the time suggested that a division headquarters could have improved training and oversight for those brigades before they deployed.
Now, Lewis-McChord has the same command structure as Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Bragg in North Carolina: Brigades report to a two-star general in a division, and a division answers to a three-star general in a corps.
Until now, Lewis-McChord’s brigades reported directly to I Corps.
Having a traditional number of layers is important to the Army because it frees up I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown to focus on strategic decisions in the Pacific while requiring Lanza to pay close attention to the training, discipline and health of the base’s largest combat brigades.
“I can think of no location that needs a division” more than Lewis-McChord, because of rapid growth at the base, Brown said.
Lewis-McChord had about 18,000 soldiers in 2003. It now has about 34,000 active-duty soldiers.
The 7th Infantry Division was created in 1917 and recorded a storied history in the Pacific Theater in World War II and in the Korean War. It was last active in 2006, when it was located at Fort Carson, Colo.
Some veterans who fought with the division decades ago traveled to the base south of Tacoma to see its “hourglass” flag unfurled again.
Gene Peeples, 77, put on his blue uniform as a retired Army master sergeant for the occasion. He’s a Korean War veteran and the president of the 7th Infantry Division Association. Peeples traveled from Florida for Wednesday’s ceremony.
“I thought it was pretty cool” that the Army chose his division for the command at Lewis-McChord, he said. His group has about 2,900 members and wants to recruit active-duty soldiers.
Dick Hazelmeyer, 80, of Spokane brought his camera and took close photos of Lanza receiving the division flag from Brown.
Hazelmeyer served more than 22 years in the military, including seven with the Air Force at McChord Air Field. He remains closest to the 7th Infantry Division because he fought with it in the Korean War between 1952 and 1953.
“I got a lot of pride. It’s our combat division,” he said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646