JBLM Strykers set to go anywhere — at any time

adam.ashton@thenewstribune.comOctober 2, 2013 

Pfc. Joshua Colwell spreads out his poncho before checking and packing his equipment Tuesday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The drill was preparing the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division for rapid deployment that is possible as it joins the Army’s Global Response Force. (JANET JENSEN/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

JANET JENSEN — Staff photographer

About 200 Stryker soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord spent the past eight months training for a deployment order that might not ever come.

They’re ready to go as new additions to an Army rapid response force that could take them anywhere in the world at any time. It’s an eight- to 12-month assignment that is coming to a Stryker company at the base south of Tacoma for the first time.

“The equipment is ready to go,” said Col. Dave Bair, who oversees the company as commander of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

The mindset: “I’m ready to go, all the time,” he said.

As of Tuesday, the local troops are expected to remain constantly ready to deploy within 96 hours of a call to service. They’d be the first reinforcements to the 82nd Airborne Division’s so-called Global Response Force, a brigade designed to drop in to a hot spot and clear the way for more troops.

The task represents a change of pace for Stryker units at Lewis-McChord, which have methodically prepared for known deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan in alternating years since 2003.

Those missions tended to give soldiers a reliable calendar to prepare for war and plan their lives. By contrast, the global response mission requires them to be constantly ready to hit the ground in a hostile landscape or in a humanitarian crisis.

“You can get called up at any time,” said Capt. Paul Brown, 29, commander of A Company in the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. The battalion belongs to Bair’s Stryker brigade.

Brown’s soldiers are offered the mix of social services the Army offers to all deploying troops, such as designating a power of attorney and revising wills. They face tight restrictions on alcohol consumption after hours and get frequent counseling from leaders reminding them of their responsibilities.

“It’s talking to soldiers, making sure they don’t do anything crazy,” said Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ythemar, 35, who deployed to Iraq three times with the 3rd Brigade between 2003 and 2010.

The company has already practiced several dry runs in which soldiers were called up with no notice and ordered to get their gear packed.

The next step will come within weeks, when the company goes on alert and practices hauling its mission-ready gear and 19-ton Stryker vehicles to the C-17 cargo jets at McChord Air Field. From there, the Stryker company could go anywhere with help from the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord.

That’s more or less the mission that retired Gen. Eric Shinseki had in mind in the late 1990s when he called for the Army to develop medium-weight infantry vehicles that could quickly bring heavy firepower for unexpected crises.

His request became the Stryker program, which Fort Lewis cultivated in the run-up to the Iraq War. The 3rd Brigade was the Army’s first Stryker brigade.

“It’s exciting that we can get out so quick,” Brown said. “That’s how we’re designed to be deployed.”

He took command of the company last August when it was still fighting insurgents in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

It had a quick turnaround when they came home last November and December, shifting to the new assignment by February.

The A Company went on two large-scale training exercises, recently joining its partner brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division for a multi-week drill at Fort Polk in Louisiana.

The Global Response Force traditionally is an 82nd Airborne assignment that alternates within its brigades. The division’s leaders at Fort Bragg in North Carolina have trumpeted its return now that combat operations in Afghanistan are slowing. They train constantly to seize airfields and establish footholds for follow-up military units.

“It’s a mindset,” said 1st Sgt. Charles Pittman, 34, of the Stryker company. The Yelm resident served in the 82nd for five years and got reacquainted with old colleagues at the Fort Polk exercise.

Some soldiers say they enjoy the focus their new on-call assignment demands.

Lt. David Currid, 27, got his commission in late 2011. Like many young officers, the Tacoma resident wanted to deploy when he took his oath.

“I was a little upset I wasn’t going to get a deployment,” he said. But getting the global response task “was just really exciting and a great honor that we were selected for this.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

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