Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Col. Lou Zeisman leads thousands of soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord who want to know what the Army will ask of them now that they’re not in line to go back to Afghanistan.
He’s giving them a preview this month as he and about 100 other soldiers from the base travel to East Asia for a military exercise in which they’re reporting to a South Korean general. They hit the ground there late last week.
“This is new to everybody, so this is exciting for all of us,” said Zeisman, who commands the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Lewis-McChord.
Their assignment is another in a series of signals from the Defense Department that it’s serious about building relationships between the troops at Lewis-McChord and militaries along the Pacific Rim, even as the Pentagon faces increasingly difficult budget decisions.
I Corps, now reports to the Pentagon’s Navy-led Pacific Command. High-ranking soldiers at the corps and 7th Infantry Division have been participating in exercises in Australia, South Korea and the Philippines. More are on the way.
Last week, close to 400 soldiers in a Lewis-McChord helicopter squadron deployed for a nine-month assignment in South Korea. It’s the kind of mission they didn’t do while the Army focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It offers a chance for us to share lessons learned and to learn a bit more about how our allies’ armies do their business,” Lt. Col. Bruce Watkins, commander of the helicopter squadron, said in an Army news story announcing the mission.
The changes are striking because one year ago all three of Lewis-McChord’s Stryker brigades were in Afghanistan or on their way there with some 12,000 troops under their flags.
Zeisman has a history similar to that of the local Stryker brigades even though he didn’t come to Lewis-McChord until last summer. He deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years with units in the 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, N.C.
Now his soldiers are in for a period of recovery following the wars. He says they want to know: “What do you do when there’s no patch chart?”
A patch chart is an Army term for a calendar planners use to plot combat deployments. Troops on the patch chart expect to go to war.
This month, Zeisman and his team are reporting to the Republic of Korea’s 17th Infantry Division. Usually, he said, American and South Korean units maintain separate chains of command on joint exercises. Not this time.
One of the main goals is to see how soldiers from the two countries communicate under the stress of a combat scenario.
“This is nothing that’s going away. We have to figure this out now,” he said.
Any military exercise on the Korean Peninsula takes place against the backdrop of an often unstable security situation between North Korea and South Korea. The two countries appeared to be on the brink of war early this year. Tensions have relaxed since then.
Zeisman briefly visited South Korea earlier this month to meet with his commander and lay the groundwork for the exercise. He said in an interview last week that he wanted his team to take the exercises as seriously as they prepared for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You have to go over there and give it your all because it’s important,” he said. “Oh, and by the way, this costs a lot of money. You have to be accountable.”