Sgt. Stephen Perras’ parents had understandable questions when they learned he’d spend much of this year in Iraq and Kuwait. It’s his first deployment, and it might take him to the fight against the Islamic State.
That’s where his platoon sergeant, Zachary Wilkerson, stepped in.
Sgt. 1st Class Wilkerson is about to leave for his fifth deployment in a 10-year run. He has a calming effect on parents.
“He reassured my family that we’ll be good; he told them how well-trained we are,” said Perras, 24.
Theirs were some of the conversations between soldiers and families at Joint Base Lewis-McChord as it prepares to send one of its artillery units to the escalating fight against militants in Iraq and Syria.
A ceremony Tuesday marked their upcoming departure.
Today, about 3,500 U.S. military service members are serving in Iraq, mostly as advisers to friendly forces. Soon, they’ll be augmented by hundreds of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division who are heading to Iraq to work with its army and with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
The goal — as outlined by Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier this month — is to continue helping the Iraq government reclaim land the Islamic State seized almost two years ago, including the city of Mosul.
The Islamic State “is a cancer that’s threatening to spread. And like all cancers, you can’t cure the disease just by cutting out the tumor,” Carter told soldiers at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. “You have to eliminate it wherever it has spread, and stop it from coming back.”
My platoon is my family. My family, my platoon.
Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Wilkerson
This group at JBLM — about 150 soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment — expects to split its footprint between established bases in Kuwait and other sites in Iraq. It’ll fire the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, which can strike targets with satellite-guided rockets.
The Army has been using the weapon against the Islamic State in Iraq since last summer, according to a November analysis in The Washington Post. It’s regarded as a precise weapon that often is used in collaboration with Special Operations teams.
The battalion served in the United Arab Emirates for most of 2014, helping American allies learn how to fire their own HIMARS weapons and participating in a regional defense network.
It spent the past year on a rigorous training cycle that included assignments with an Army Ranger battalion and a monthlong test at the National Training Center in the Mojave Desert that soldiers likened to “World War III.”
They say they’re ready for anything.
“We’re proud of the team. They’re going to do very well,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. Frank Buchheit.
The battalion last served in Iraq in late 2011. Its return in December of that year was billed as JBLM’s last big homecoming of the Iraq war.
I’ve been waiting for this.
Sgt. Stephen Perras
It took place at a moment with the Obama administration and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki declared the country was ready to defend itself.
“It’s pretty cool when you realize you were among the last boots on the ground,” a soldier said that day when he rejoined his family at McChord Air Field.
American troops began returning to Iraq in the summer of 2014, after Mosul’s fall. A handful of small units from JBLM have been there, including a Special Operations unit, an air defense battalion and a communications battalion.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Perras said.
His platoon sergeant, Wilkerson, thinks he might get a chance to work with the HIMARS on this deployment. That’s unusual for him.
In the past, artillery units like his often were handed different tasks, patrolling neighborhoods or supporting infantry, rather than shooting rockets.
“I’ve deployed five times, I’ve only done my job once,” he said.
He’s also looking forward to bringing his soldiers home later this year.
“My platoon is my family,” he said. “My family, my platoon.”