FORT IRWIN, Calif. — Lt. Tyler Tessman awoke in the desert one day this week with two problems.
He had to rethink a tough training mission that stacked the odds against his Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker platoon.
And he had to consider the possibility that his team might be grounded before he could even start on the battle plan.
Three of the four Strykers vehicles in his platoon were immobilized — one from too many busted tires, one from a broken axle and one from an assortment of safety issues that made it undrivable.
His predicament is familiar to Stryker soldiers since they returned to their base south of Tacoma from Afghanistan a year ago. They’re working the kinks out of aging vehicles while preparing for a new kind of mission, one that would call on the eight-wheeled Strykers to face formidable armies instead of the elusive insurgencies of the past dozen years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The training has unfolded this month as the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division goes through exercises at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert. Keeping their Stryker machines in the field is no small challenge when they’re driving over jagged rocks and rough terrain.
“We popped a tire. No kidding. You’re driving over volcanic rock. You’re going to pop a tire,” said Maj. Adam Latham, the executive officer for the brigade’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment.
The 3rd Brigade, the Army’s original Stryker brigade, has some of the oldest Strykers in the military. The brigade took the vehicles to Iraq three times, but left them at home for its last deployment to Afghanistan in 2011-2012.
During that Afghanistan mission, the brigade’s 300-some Strykers sat in outdoor motor pools for extended periods of time. Some gathered water in the rain.
They didn’t get a full-on outdoors test until October, when the brigade visited the Yakima Training Center to gear up for this month’s exercise in Southern California. Yakima revealed the maintenance flaws many of the brigade’s Strykers built up in their year of little use.
At one point in Yakima, fewer than half of the Strykers in the cavalry squadron were considered ready for combat, said squadron chief mechanic Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ric Minton, 31, of Olympia.
He and his team “didn’t sleep for three days” to get the squadron’s readiness rate back up to 90 percent, he said.
Spending constraints further crimped the brigade as it prepared for its Yakima exercise during the October government shutdown. The unit could not buy essential replacement parts until the spending restrictions were lifted.
“When we got the parts, our operational readiness levels came up to standard,” said Maj. Dennis Fajardo, the brigade’s logistics officer.
Minton said the Strykers were in good shape when they hit the ground at Fort Irwin in early January. The Army sent the machines by train from Lewis-McChord to the desert base. About 10 of the cavalry squadron’s 69 Strykers were down for repairs early this week.
“These trucks have been ripped apart and put back together four times” in the past year, with each “rip” representing a maintenance overhaul, Minton said.
This month, the Lewis-McChord soldiers are doing an exercise that simulates how they would operate if they were called upon to restore a border of an American ally that lost territory to a well-armed neighbor.
The soldiers do not have the forward bases they used as logistical hubs in Iraq and Afghanistan, where well-stocked mechanics could get vehicles moving again. They’re sleeping in Strykers and their only replacement parts are the ones they brought with them.
As a result, soldiers are learning “to appreciate the maintenance and sustainment of equipment,” brigade Commander Col. Dave Bair said.
“What do you do when equipment like this breaks and you’re in contact with the enemy and you have 30 kilometers to go?” he said.
Out in the field, Tessman’s platoon had one Stryker that was completely nonoperational. The platoon towed it from site to site.
Another vehicle lost three tires on a training mission this week. One more broke its axle on a late-night, mountaintop mission and had to limp home.
“It seems like we’re fighting the Strykers and then fighting the enemy,” one of his soldiers said as they talked over the damages and the time they spent repairing vehicles.
Tessman got out in the field the next day in part by taking tires from the completely immobilized Stryker and reusing them on the machine that notched the three blowouts. His platoon borrowed a Stryker from another unit to round out an operational team for that day.
It made for hard work first thing in the morning. Each tire weighs more than 200 pounds.
That’s why it takes hours to change one singlehandedly, said Pfc. Jeffrey Sturzenegger, who was on tire-changing duty for Tessman’s platoon this week.
He had some help Wednesday morning lifting and replacing the busted tires. But he was still sweating from the work.
Latham, the cavalry executive officer, said 96 percent of the squadron’s vehicles were ready for combat before Tessman’s mission. Losing a couple of Strykers brought down that number, but learning how to fix them with limited resources was an important lesson, he said.
“This is a full-contact sport, and it’s a full-contact sport for the vehicles, too,” he said.