Stryker brigade Commander Col. Barry Huggins jokes that the soldiers just coming into his charge aren’t getting the “full Huggins” now that he’s at the tail end of a three-year assignment leading troops and deploying with them to Afghanistan.
“It’s a shame, because it’s an impressive sight,” he laughingly told his officers and senior enlisted soldiers at a briefing last month.
He might not feel in top form, but his soldiers don’t have to look far to see how the “full Huggins” left a lasting impression at Joint Base Lewis-McChord over the past dozen years.
Huggins, 48, is one of a handful of soldiers who spent most of the Iraq and Afghanistan years stationed at Lewis-McChord, persistently deploying with its marquee Stryker brigades. He leaves his command of the 4,000 soldiers in the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division on Tuesday, moving on to an as-yet unnamed Army post, likely on the East Coast.
A “full Huggins” looks like an energetic, sometimes playful officer who can set a big picture vision for his soldiers and step back to let them figure out challenges on their own. He’s a by-the-book son of an Army command sergeant major whose wife grew up in a similar Army household.
“There’s not a man out there who has a more consistent internal compass for doing the right thing for the mission, for the unit and for the individual soldiers,” said Maj. Brent Clemmer, Huggins’ executive officer.
Huggins’ record at Lewis-McChord touches on many of the major events that unfolded for local soldiers since Strykers started appearing at then-Fort Lewis in 2001.
He led troops on the base’s first major deployment to Iraq, took a battalion to Iraq in the bloody days of the “surge,” oversaw courts-martial for the “kill team” war crimes investigation and applied almost a decade of learning about fighting insurgents on his last deployment to Afghanistan.
He has two big themes on his mind as he prepares to leave: How to pass on the knowledge soldiers took from the long-running wars to the next generation of troops and how to bridge the gap between the nation’s warrior class and civilians who are increasingly distant from the military.
“I don’t want us to be seen as separate, as an interest group competing for resources,” Huggins said. “I want the American people to understand that we are them, we are of them.”
A ROCKY START
The assignment Huggins is ending began in 2010 when he took command of a Stryker brigade just as it returned from Afghanistan with a mixed reputation.
It had earned praise for hard fighting at the beginning of a surge of American forces, but also scrutiny because several of its solders were accused of murdering Afghan civilians, plus its former commander, Col. Harry Tunnell, was out of step with what his NATO leaders wanted from him.
An Army investigation into Tunnell’s command found he was not responsible in any way for the killings that took place in his brigade, but it criticized him for being too lax on certain standards and for being in conflict with his commanding officers. Four soldiers ultimately were convicted in connection with killing three noncombatants.
Huggins refashioned the brigade’s identity and took it back to the same part of Afghanistan last year. It benefited from improved security since it last fought in Kandahar province, and the deployment had none of the distractions that characterized the 2009-10 mission.
He asked his soldiers to view themselves as defenders of innocents in a dangerous part of the world. He changed the brigade motto from “search and destroy” to “seize the high ground.”
“I want young men, soldiers whose mothers and fathers have entrusted them to us to defend the nation, I want them to know that they are expected to behave with honor, and they do what they do in the service of others,” he said.
“It is not sufficient simply to be good at destroying things. It is important to understand our purpose is to protect, and that’s what I wanted to convey.”
Huggins’ headquarters is full of poster-size photos from the 2nd Stryker Brigade’s recent deployment to Afghanistan. He pointed out that the photos show soldiers following Army standards to the letter with gloves, eye protection and proper handling of weapons.
“No mustaches,” he said.
It’s a small detail, but it’s a contrast to the way soldiers looked in the 2009-10 tour. Tunnell allowed mustaches for the deployment, and some soldiers looked like shady characters even in official Army images.
It didn’t help when hundreds of images of the “kill team” troops made their way to the media during 18 months of court hearings at Lewis-McChord. “No mustaches” was a sign Huggins believed doing the small things correctly would set a tone for success on more challenging problems.
Huggins and Clemmer have a connection to another of Lewis-McChord’s disturbing war crimes incidents. In 2006-07, they commanded Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the soldier accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians last year.
The three were named and quoted in an Army news story recounting the 2007 battle of Zarqa, a two-day fight in which a Stryker company under Clemmer’s command destroyed an insurgent militia and then quickly turned its attention to humanitarian efforts.
Huggins did not know Bales well, but said the sergeant saw the best of the Army that day.
“I watched my companies accept that surrender, safeguard those people,” Huggins said. “We airlifted medical supplies, airlifted medical evacuations for people we had just been fighting, and I saw a demonstration of the American soldier both as incredible tenacity in skill in combat and compassion afterward.
“Sgt. Bales was part of that. He probably saw some horrific things that day, but what he also saw that day was some of the best the American soldier can do.”
Huggins can’t explain the “kill team” incidents or the allegations against Bales. He remains worried about how those cases influence the opinions of civilians about the military, particularly for Americans with no ties to the armed forces.
“It’s easier when people have personal experience with what we do,” he said. “But the fact that much of America does not have a connection (to the military) does not absolve us of the requirement to get out there and make sure people understand who we are and what we are about.”
He offers the soldiers he just brought home from Afghanistan as a counterpoint. Over their nine-month tour, his soldiers worked closely with Afghan forces and nurtured civilian leaders in small villages.
Huggins left Afghanistan with brighter hopes for that country than he had for Iraq when he came home from his 15-month tour in 2007. He’s confident Afghans will find their own ways to secure their country.
He plans to stay in the military a few more years. He calls being a soldier an “integral part of who I am.”
“This is the most operationally experienced army I think we’ve ever had — 10 years of sustained conflict going back to January of 2002, and every soldier that’s in it now has either enlisted or re-enlisted, chosen to stay in an Army that’s at war,” he said. “These are dedicated young men and women, and I do think, given the context of the times, given the fact that armed conflict is still ongoing, this is a uniquely committed generation of soldiers. It’s really heartening to be a part of.”
COL. BARRY HUGGINS
Family: Wife, Michelle; daughter, Jennifer.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from North Carolina State University, master’s degree in Russian studies from Harvard University, master’s degree in national resource strategy from the National Defense University.
Career: Enlisted in the Army in 1981, commissioned as an officer in 1989.
2001: Operations officer for a battalion in the Army’s original Stryker brigade, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at then-Fort Lewis. Deployed with the brigade in 2003 as the brigade’s executive officer.
2006-07: Commanding officer for the 3rd Stryker Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment during a violent 15-month tour in Iraq. “I have been attacked personally by children as young as 10 and 13 with hand grenades and so forth,” he told The New York Times that year.
2008-10: Received advanced Army schooling and served in the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
2010-present: Commanding officer of the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The brigade served nine months in Afghanistan in 2012-13.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646