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JBLM soldiers headed back to Iraq

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is sending troops back to Iraq for the first time in three years, the Army announced Tuesday.

A small group of communications soldiers in the 51st Signal Battalion are expected to start leaving on a nine-month mission later this month.

They’ll join about 3,000 U.S. military service members who have been called to Iraq since Sunni Muslim extremists in the Islamic State seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June and threatened to reach Baghdad.

The signal battalion’s assignment is the first announced deployment to Iraq for a JBLM unit since the Army brought home a group of about 150 soldiers in artillery and medical units in December 2011. A year earlier, more than 3,000 Stryker troops with JBLM’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division rolled out of Iraq with accolades as the last American combat brigade there.

Since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, Sunni extremists have seized large swaths of territory in Iraq’s northern and western provinces, destabilizing the country’s Shiite-led government.

U.S. forces in Iraq today mostly serve to advise Iraqi troops in their fight against Islamic militants, according to the White House and Pentagon. American drones and jets also regularly attack Islamic State positions.

The JBLM signal battalion is composed of soldiers who are trained to build up modern communications systems in austere environments. About 110 of them are scheduled to join the Iraq assignment to improve communication networks for U.S. troops and their allies.

“They have built a superb reputation across the Army for the providing world-class signal support. They are truly committed to their craft,” battalion Commander Lt. Col. John Meek said in a prepared statement.

For the past two years, JBLM has mostly been sending groups of soldiers to do exercises with Pacific allies after wrapping up a decadelong combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan. In December, the South Sound base brought home what was expected to be its last large unit to serve a nine-month mission in Afghanistan.

But its days of deploying troops to the world’s hot spots are not necessarily over. Last month, the Army announced it is adding staff to JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division headquarters to prepare it for a possible deployment.

Meanwhile, a JBLM artillery headquarters and a rocket battalion are serving near Iraq in the Middle East. The Army has declined to name the country in which they are based.

The signal battalion has been ready for a mission for several months. In the fall, it was in line to go to West Africa to support the Ebola-fighting effort. That assignment instead went to a unit based in Fort Bragg, N.C., said a spokeswoman for the Georgia-based headquarters that oversees the JBLM battalion.

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