A decade of constant combat deployments is coming to an end at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, shifting the Army’s focus from the country’s longest war to new challenges along the Pacific Rim.
The base south of Tacoma plans to bring home some 8,000 soldiers from Afghanistan this winter. About 2,500 Lewis-McChord soldiers in a variety of support units expect to be in Afghanistan after the new year, and another 3,000 local Stryker troops in the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division likely will stay through August.
That should be the end of Lewis-McChord’s major deployments to the war, commanders say, citing President Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw combat forces by 2014.
None of the base’s large Stryker brigades are expected to deploy there again.
“The plan is they’ll be oriented to the Pacific,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, Lewis-McChord’s senior Army officer.
He expects the base each year to support half a dozen exercises with Pacific allies, such as Australia and South Korea, while extending invitations for Asian nations to train with Lewis-McChord troops in the Northwest.
Some units will continue to deploy to Afghanistan, but mostly in smaller numbers to support a small U.S. presence that could remain in the country after the 2014 withdrawal. They include elements from the base’s combat aviation brigade, Special Forces teams, combat engineers and logistics experts from Lewis-McChord’s sustainment brigade.
Lewis-McChord’s largest Air Force unit, the 62nd Airlift Wing, also likely would continue to deploy to the Middle East to deliver supplies and service members to bases from Africa to Kuwait to Afghanistan.
The change closes a decade in which the Army spent hundreds of millions of dollars building up Lewis-McChord to support the wars.
It invested in new headquarters, built mock Iraqi villages for exercises, and added some 17,000 active-duty soldiers to the base since 2003.
Through that decade, Brown estimates that Lewis-McChord kept about 10,000 service members constantly deployed to the wars.
“I would see that number going down to 1,000 or less, maybe 500 or less,” after the last Stryker soldiers come home next summer, Brown said.
The soldiers at home expect to train for worst-case scenarios, such as conventional wars between developed armies. They’ll likely use that training on other missions, such as humanitarian efforts following natural disasters, Brown said.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division, anticipates competition for training exercises in the South Sound, at the Yakima Training Center and at Army training grounds in Oregon. South Sound residents likely will notice the full base when traffic picks up on Interstate 5, as well as when artillery exercises are held.
With limited access to physical training areas, Lanza also plans to make more use of virtual exercises that can pose new challenges to soldiers.
“We have to prepared for whatever our country asks us to do,” Lanza said.