What looks like a simple name change for a Stryker brigade at Joint Base Lewis-McChord means much more for thousands of military families who passed through the South Sound during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The Army on Tuesday retired the flag of its first and most frequently deployed Stryker brigade. The 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was rechristened with the identity of a command the Army inactivated in South Korea a year ago, the 1st Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
It’s a change driven by custom. The Army’s getting smaller, and when it shrinks, it chooses to retain the identities of its oldest units while closing younger ones.
In this case, the name of a unit with a deep history at JBLM and in Iraq will be replaced by the name of a unit with an even deeper history of nearly 50 years in South Korea. It also changes the brigade’s symbols, moving from “Arrowhead” to “Ghost.”
“That is part of the history and tradition of our profession,” said Brig. Gen. Ken Kamper, a leader at Fort Hood, Texas, who once commanded the brigade’s artillery battalion on a 15-month deployment during the Iraq surge. “As we move forward, great people will remember the legacy of 3-2 just as great people will continue to serve honorably and continue the legacy of the 1-2.”
The reflagging stirs strong emotions, however, because of the 3-2’s deployments to recent wars. Veterans have been sounding off at the brigade’s social media sites, venting about the change.
“I understand what the Army’s concept is and what they’re doing. At the same time 3-2 Arrowhead is America’s first Stryker brigade. It’ll always be that,” said Sgt. 1st Class Derek White, 35, who served six years in the brigade and deployed twice with it to Iraq.
The brigade’s granite memorial at JBLM lists the names of 146 soldiers who died while fighting under its command in Iraq and Afghanistan or while training for deployments. Those sacrifices are fresh memories for soldiers.
“At least two or three times a week, you’d have to go out there and clean up around the memorial because a soldier would go out there and drink a beer with a buddy, or a family would leave flowers,” said retired Col. Charles Webster, who led the brigade on its deployment to Afghanistan in 2011-12.
The monument, which stood for years next to the brigade headquarters, was moved last week to JBLM’s memorial park. Officials say it was moved to bring all of the base’s war memorials to one location. It will continue to bear the 3-2 name.
Webster supports the reflagging, calling it an honor for the Army to give the unit the number of the division’s first brigade. But he said his wife was having a hard time with the decision to move the memorial away from where soldiers spend most of their time.
The 3-2 at JBLM first appeared in 1995 as an armored brigade. It became a choice unit in the Army a few years later when it was selected to be the first brigade equipped with new, eight-wheeled Strykers.
Today, those first Stryker troops look back fondly on months of training in the field and an underdog mentality they carried against critics who suggested the new platform would fail.
They trained on Italian and Canadian vehicles that are similar to Strykers until they received a full complement of the vehicles in the early summer of 2002.
“There was no doctrine. There was no foundation we could build upon. We got a bunch of equipment we couldn’t use, and then we had to borrow equipment from unit to unit,” said retired Maj. Christopher Parrinello, 47, a former intelligence officer who spent six years with the brigade. It was his favorite assignment in his military career, he said.
The brigade joined the war in Iraq less than two years later. It left Fort Lewis in November 2003 for a yearlong deployment that centered on Iraq’s northern city of Mosul. It returned there in 2006, and went back to Iraq once more in 2009.
The combat tours solidified the Stryker’s reputation as a fast-moving machine that could transport soldiers quickly across hundreds of miles. After the 3-2, the Army made eight more Stryker brigades, three of which have been based intermittently at JBLM.
“We were all over the place in Iraq, and that’s what was special about us,” said retired Lt. Col. Kevin Hosier, who served on two Iraq deployments. He admitted he was “kind of sad” about the reflagging.
The brigade’s last tour came in late 2011, when Webster took about 4,000 soldiers to southern Afghanistan. They had a sprawling assignment across several provinces.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who led the brigade on its long deployment during the Iraq surge, called its contributions to the wars “some of the hardest fighting in both theaters.” He’s now the commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“Few brigades in our Army have done as much and no brigade has done more in service to the country. Though sad to see the Arrowhead colors furled and cased today, the soldiers, civilians and family members of the Arrowhead Brigade are justifiably proud of their superb service and contributions to America's freedom and security and will keep the spirit of the Arrowhead Brigade alive in their hearts until those colors are once again called to service,” he said.
Since 2012, the brigade has been rebuilding and preparing for new assignments. Next year, it’ll send one of its battalions to East Asia for a string of exercises.
The brigade commander, Col. Dave Foley, tried this week to pay respect to the 3-2’s recent history while setting it up for new challenges. The motto he chose for the brigade, “Ghost,” is a nod to its reputation in Iraq, where insurgents referred to Stryker troops as “ghost soldiers” because of their speedy, quiet machines.
Foley brought in loved ones of fallen troops for a ceremony Tuesday rededicating the memorial.
“We’re the same people; we just go by a different name,” he said.