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For JBLM soldiers, three months in Asia present challenges unlike war zones

One thing Master Sgt. Trinidad Gutierrez never had to worry about on his four combat deployments was how he’d get overseas. Each time, he and his unit traveled to battle theaters in Iraq or Afghanistan, where they would take over an established base and begin their missions.

But now, the wars are almost over for large Army units — and so is the assurance that soldiers will know where their next assignment will take them.

That’s why Gutierrez and about 750 fellow Stryker soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord have spent the past three months on a complicated series of exercises in East Asia, visiting three countries that many of them had never seen before.

The soldiers from south of Tacoma are working to increase the Army’s footprint in the Pacific while working through some challenges they did not encounter during the wars, such as negotiating port fees and getting started without the comforts of a modern forward base.

“We had three different countries to coordinate with in addition to picking up people along the way,” said Gutierrez, the top noncommissioned officer overseeing logistics in JBLM’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

“It may have been more difficult than deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan where you just had to worry about getting your people there and it was just a one-time jump,” he said.

The Stryker soldiers are heading into the last week of the Army’s first so-called Pacific Pathways mission. It’s a repackaging of normal military exercises meant to keep a single unit in motion so that its soldiers gain experience working with different armies in a deploymentlike setting.

For the 2nd Brigade, that meant successive assignments in Indonesia, Malaysia and now Japan. Previously, one Army unit would have gone to just one country for a military-to-military exercise and then returned home.

They’ve used the time to test how land-based Army vehicles operate after extended periods at sea, and to coach allied military forces in skills where they feel they need improvement.

The Malaysians, for instance, were interested in how the Army uses eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles for urban warfare. In return, the Malaysians gave JBLM soldiers lessons in how to survive in the jungle.

“They were the experts in the jungle for this, and we took them out of the jungle,” said Col. Lou Zeisman, commander of the 2nd Brigade. “We left Malaysia and they were a heck of a lot stronger than when we got there.”

In the past month, senior Army commanders heaped praise on the program to audiences at the annual Association of the United States Army conference. They had faced scrutiny as they developed the Pathways concept over concerns that the Army might not be able to afford a stepped-up presence in the Pacific at a time of postwar downsizing.

With one Pathways rotation almost complete, Army Pacific Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks cast the exercises as an innovative and cost-effective way for the Army to strengthen relationships with Asian allies while preparing soldiers for many kinds of missions.

“We have to have more faces, in more places, without more bases,” Brooks said at October’s AUSA conference. “That’s the opportunity and the challenge for us.”

JBLM’s I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, who reports to Brooks, told Defense News that two more Pacific Pathways are planned through 2015.

“After a decade of war, we have learned a lot about doing counterinsurgency. We have learned a lot doing small-unit tactics. We have learned a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Lanza said. “The point now is to build on what we’ve learned at that level and then bridge forward to increase our capability and capacity to do a full range of operations.”

On the ground, JBLM soldiers were exposed to new kinds of training they would not have seen in stateside exercises.

In Indonesia, Pfc. Jaime Martinez participated in a jungle warfare course with the local military, learning what he could eat and how he could stay hidden in a new environment. He also got his first taste of crocodile in a shared meal with his Indonesian counterparts.

He joined the Army last year. This was first overseas assignment.

“Having to do a ruck (march) in the jungle was a lot different,” said Martinez, 22, of Lacey. “Really humid, really different environment.”

Gutierrez, the veteran, had to figure out how to ship heavy eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles from JBLM to three countries. He also had to coordinate flights for soldiers from the 2nd Brigade and hundreds more soldiers who joined them from bases in Hawaii and Alaska.

He said a long overseas assignment can feel “old hat” to someone with his experience, but he thought it was a good opportunity to show younger soldiers how to get ready for a deployment.

“It gives them the experience of having to integrate into a new country,” said Gutierrez, 46, of Graham. “Some of these soldiers may never get a chance to deploy because we’re winding down” from the wars.

JBLM’s soldiers are expected to start returning home next week. They’ve been gone since August.

One thing never changes, whether they’re sent to the Middle East or the Pacific.

“The difficult part for me is being away from the family for so long,” Gutierrez said.

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