Staff Sgt. Michael Glass remembers the blunt question he got from a grizzled platoon sergeant when he showed up at what was then called Fort Lewis for his first assignment in the Army.
“You ready to go to war?”
“Roger, sir,” he replied.
Eight years and three deployments later, Glass is saying goodbye to the only unit he’s known in his Army career: Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
On Friday, the Army officially inactivated the unit, known as the Raider Brigade, in a move that eventually will reduce the number of active-duty soldiers at the base by 4,500.
No longer fighting two wars, the Army does not need all the brigades it developed for Iraq. The 4th Brigade, famous for carrying out the American military’s “last patrol” of the Iraq War, is the first to dissolve at Lewis-McChord. Two other Stryker brigades remain at the base, with no plans for them to go away.
“So much is changing,” said Glass, 29, a Lacey resident on his way to a different Lewis-McChord unit that oversees training for National Guard soldiers.
This first cut is Lewis-McChord’s main contribution to an Army plan to shed 10 combat brigades and 80,000 soldiers from its Iraq War peak of 570,000 troops. More cuts are on the horizon.
The 3,200 soldiers in 4th Brigade will move to new Army assignments or start civilian careers. About 200 will make their way to Fort Carson in Colorado, where the Army is making a new Stryker brigade with equipment from the base south of Tacoma.
Most of the brigade’s soldiers will remain in the South Sound, with 700 joining new units in the next two weeks.
“The legacy of the Raider Brigade is its soldiers,” said Col. Jody Miller, its current commander. He joined it in 2005 and served with it on its first Iraq mission. “They’ll be a little piece of Raider DNA wherever they go in the Army.”
Closing the brigade not only is a milestone for them, but also for Lewis-McChord.
The Army built the brigade at the base nine years ago to train it for a period of intense fighting in the Iraq “surge.” Most recently, it served in Afghanistan from November 2012 until July 2013 on an assignment backing up local security forces in battles against the Taliban.
Through the years, the unit lost 42 soldiers in the wars and suffered 536 nonfatal casualties. Its commanders count 58 deaths when they include soldiers from elsewhere who reported to them during deployments.
All but four of those casualties occurred during the 15-month Iraq deployment in 2007-08.
“I will never forget the 54 soldiers assigned to (the 4th Brigade) who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Brig. Gen. Jon Lehr, the brigade’s first commander. “I carry the 54 names with me every day I’m in uniform.”
Lehr and the brigade’s two other former commanders spoke to The News Tribune by phone or email.
Soldiers recall that first tour as a fast-paced mission during which they “kicked down doors” and chased “bad guys.”
At the ground level, Glass remembered constant fighting and the makings of lifelong friendships.
“Those guys back then, I’d go to the end of the earth and just fall off for them,” he said.
The “surge” mission ended in June 2008, but many 4th Brigade soldiers found themselves back in Iraq a little more than a year later.
They deployed in September 2009 on an accelerated schedule because the Defense Department wanted to send more troops to Afghanistan while maintaining a large force in Iraq.
By then, the pace of the war had slowed considerably.
“I might’ve heard a gunshot once,” Glass said.
Freed from daily shootouts, the brigade’s soldiers focused on supporting Iraqi security forces by helping them plan for national elections and improve their judicial system.
In August 2010, they drove their 320 Strykers from Baghdad to Kuwait in what became known as the war’s “last patrol.” It made headlines around the world.
“It signaled the end of a very successful year in Iraq, the end of Iraqi Freedom, and that we accomplished our mission with purpose and pride,” said the brigade’s commander from that tour, Col. John Norris.
“My soldiers were now all safe. No greater feeling for a commander,”
In its last overseas action, the 4th Brigade took 3,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in late 2012 for a sprawling mission across the southern part of the country.
The Afghans were supposed to lead the fight, while the U.S. troops would bring intelligence, medical and security resources the locals lacked.
Col. Mike Getchell, who led the brigade in Afghanistan, said the mission hit a tipping point in May 2013 in Kandahar province. His team helped the Afghans in a breakthrough battle but managed to stay in the background.
“The Afghans had to fight,” he said. “They didn’t lose any ground we gained for them. In fact they expanded in some restive terrain.”
Getchell’s team helped the Afghan army recover from a small setback to win a larger battle.
“They got their courage back; they got their confidence to continue the attack.”
Getchell sent many of his soldiers home after four or five months, getting them out as soon as Afghan forces in their area showed they were in control of their territory.
In recent weeks, 4th Brigade veterans have been sharing memories about the brigade on social media as the inactivation date grew closer.
One of their favorites was of Staff Sgt. Luis Falcon, who grew troubled about an Iraqi girl who lost her legs to a bomb in 2007. He campaigned to help her receive prosthetic limbs and saw her get them before the brigade’s tour ended in 2008.
Command Sgt. Maj. John Troxell, the 4th Brigade’s senior enlisted soldier on that tour, recalled praying with the girl’s family at some point before she got her legs. He grasped her wheelchair as his troops bowed their heads.
“I glanced at the Iraqi family, and noticed they were joining us in prayer in their traditional Muslim fashion of praying, and I thought at that moment, for that 60 seconds it took the chaplain to recite the prayer, the world was perfect,” Troxell wrote on Facebook last week.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646