Three years ago, Army Secretary John McHugh visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord to announce plans for a kind of unit that would be unique in the military: A division headquarters led by a two-star general that would never go to war.
To drive home the point, McHugh said he’d assign the division just 250 soldiers, making it about one-third the size of a full headquarters. That would be enough to oversee home-station training of the combat brigades JBLM gained during the Iraq War, but not enough for its own overseas missions.
McHugh’s original plan now has been thrown out the window.
JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division this month is preparing for its first deployment to Afghanistan, where about 70 of its soldiers are expected to spend a year advising allies in Kandahar province.
The deployment order is considered something of an honor at JBLM. It makes the headquarters “just like the Army’s other 10 divisions” in the words of I Corps commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who was the division’s first commander when it was launched as a stay-at-home unit at JBLM in October 2012.
“Just for the men and women who serve in this headquarters, to know they’re contributing and will be able to do so much when the nation needs us, it’s a special feeling,” said division commander Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell.
Outside the base, other Army leaders greeted the news in a similar manner. Doctrine Man, a popular Army comic strip penned by an anonymous career officer, called the deployment a sign that the headquarters is a “little division that could.”
One of his followers on social media joked “someone took non-deployable as a challenge.”
The road from McHugh’s April 2012 pledge of non-deployment to this month’s announcement that the headquarters would spend a year in southern Afghanistan began a little more than a year ago, when a series of unexpected crises strained the Army’s larger division commands.
At different times last year, elements of division commands were committed to Afghanistan, South Korea, Liberia, Iraq, Kuwait and Europe. Aside from Liberia, those missions likely will continue this year and next.
“The Army had a problem. The Army did not have enough deployable headquarters,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Bontrager, the division deputy commander who will lead the Afghanistan assignment.
The Army turned to JBLM and told officers to start thinking about what they would need if they were asked to take a turn overseas, Ferrell said.
The division had a running start, he said, because it had been taking on responsibilities to prepare its combat brigade for deployments and complex training events.
“It had capability within the headquarters, it was just partially manned compared to the size of the other divisions,” Ferrell said.
The transformation accelerated last summer when the Army sent a team to JBLM to figure out how many soldiers it would need to deploy and what equipment it was lacking.
The Army wanted the division to retain its home-station oversight of JBLM’s main combat brigades, but to also send up to 100 soldiers on an overseas mission. As a result, the Army added about 80 positions to the division’s staff.
“We had to be able to deploy the mission command node, but (most importantly), we had to maintain the mission command capabilities here, which is what we were established to do,” Ferrell said.
Bontrager said the division’s comparably small size gave it an advantage in moving quickly.
“We were good because we were small, not in spite of,” he said. “It didn’t take six months to get to know the headquarters. It took about two weeks, and everything happened much faster than in a behemoth headquarters.”
Last week, soldiers who will go to Afghanistan late this spring participated in an exercise at JBLM to work on some of challenges they anticipate finding in Kandahar.
They were joined by soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, New York, which is expected to deploy with the JBLM headquarters.
Bontrager said headquarters soldiers likely will work almost exclusively out of Kandahar Airfield, NATO’s primary forward base in southern Afghanistan, which once housed some 26,000 troops. About 2,000 troops are stationed there now, according to press reports from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent visit to the airfield.
The U.S. soldiers are not expected to go on front-line missions with Afghan security forces. Instead, they’ll coach Afghan leaders on planning missions, rule of law and governance, effective security planning, how to recruit and retain soldiers, how to supply missions, intelligence gathering and strategic communications.
About 10,000 U.S. military services today are stationed in Afghanistan. The Obama administration reportedly is debating the pace of the withdrawal for remaining troops.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani publicly has asked the administration to slow its drawdown. Afghanistan has large army and police forces that have been in persistent fighting with insurgents. Civilian casualties have climbed to their highest levels since 2009, according to United Nations reports documenting the ongoing fighting.
Bontrager said the Army likely will re-evaluate the size of the mission in Kandahar after the end of the Afghan spring and summer fighting season.
The division headquarters has a yearlong mission, but soldiers will spend no more than nine months in Afghanistan. JBLM plans to start rotating replacements into Kandahar after about six months, Ferrell said.
It’s not clear what will happen to the division after its Afghanistan assignment ends. Ferrell thinks the Army will choose to keep it about its current size rather than strip it of the 80 positions that were added for the deployment.
“If we maintain the headquarters at this strength, we’re an asset they can reach to in the future,” he said.