Conflict reshaped lives, reputation at JBLM

Soldiers believed early on that war would not last long — instead, many deployed multiple times

Staff writerMarch 19, 2013 

Maj. Chuck Hodges wished he was in a different desert 10 years ago today.

Parked at a training exercise in the Mojave Desert in Southern California, Hodges watched reports of the opening salvos of the Iraq War, convinced that he and his fellow soldiers from Fort Lewis’ first Stryker brigade would not fight in the conflict.

They thought it would all be over in a matter of days, just like the 1991 invasion.

“Yep, we’re going to miss it,” he said to himself as the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force rolled into Iraq.

But the war in Iraq made time for Hodges and tens of thousands of other soldiers who deployed out of Fort Lewis between 2003 and 2011. It would reshape their lives, strengthen the reputation of the base south of Tacoma, and build confidence in the eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles that Hodges and his soldiers were testing in the California desert that day.

Stryker brigades, each carrying some 4,000 soldiers, would leave the base for Iraq six times in the war. So would artillerymen, air crews, aviators, intelligence teams and Special Operations Forces in a constant churn of deployments that defined the past decade of Army life.

A total of 292 service members from Washington state bases and communities would lose their lives in Iraq. Their sacrifices linger with the comrades who knew them.

“I just think of the things the soldiers had to go through, and all the good soldiers we lost,” said Al Bjerke, 50, of Lacey, the retired command sergeant major of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He deployed to Iraq three times with the brigade between 2003 and 2010.

The war changed Fort Lewis, too. Before Iraq, the Army post had about 19,000 active-duty soldiers and a low profile in the Army. Now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, it’s the third-largest domestic installation in the Defense Department. It counts more than 34,000 active-duty troops, plus thousands more in the Reserves and the Air Force.

Iraq “put Fort Lewis in the national news much more, so people understand there’s a very large base in the Northwest,” said Col. Gordie Flowers, the chief operations officer for Lewis-McChord’s I Corps. He’s a veteran of the first two Stryker deployments out of the local base.

Bjerke, Flowers and Hodges were among the Fort Lewis soldiers who entered Iraq early with the 3rd Brigade. They arrived in November 2003 to find the early seeds of an insurgency that ripped Iraq apart in a civil war between Kurds, Sunni Muslim Arabs and Shiite Muslim Arabs.

Strykers moved into northern Iraqi cities of Samarra and Mosul, replacing a force from the 101st Airborne Division that carried about five times as many soldiers as the brigade from Fort Lewis. It was the first time the Army brought Strykers to war, and they did not yet have much of a reputation outside the Evergreen State.

Soldiers came to realize that the Iraq War would have little in common with the 1991 invasion.

“When we first got there, we thought it was game-over,” said Hodges, 47. He’s now a colonel and Lewis-McChord’s base commander.

It was April 9, 2004, when he recognized the depth of the insurgency. No one from Fort Lewis died that day, but the date sticks in his memory as a time when a full-blown insurgency showed itself across Mosul. Shootouts seemed to take place all over the city of nearly 2 million residents that day.

The Fort Lewis brigade helped build two large Iraqi army units that year, but the Iraqi forces weren’t ready to operate on their own. Bjerke remembers them dropping their helmets and flak jackets in the heat. Retired Iraqi army leaders sought out Americans to give advice about reforming an institution they loved, but the timing wasn’t right.

“I wish I would have understood them more, their culture. I think that was our biggest mistake, thinking we could make them like us,” Bjerke said.

The Stryker troops left Iraq in late 2004 with a good hunch they’d return. Flowers was back in Iraq half a year a later as the deputy commander under Fort Lewis’ second Stryker brigade.

Bjerke returned in 2006-07 for the most violent year of the war. More than 100 service members from Washington died in Iraq in 2007. It was the height of sectarian war among Iraqis.

He expected to get hit every time he and his soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment left their forward bases. Meanwhile, they’d manage public improvement projects, such as drinking water or power plants, only to see insurgents destroy their work before civilians could enjoy it.

“I didn’t think we were making any progress at all,” he said.

Sometimes Bjerke struggled to muster up the talks that senior enlisted soldiers must deliver to focus troops in combat.

“It was tough to talk myself into making those speeches,” he said.

Hard fighting in the “surge” of 2007-08 shaped Fort Lewis’ expectations for its last big year in Iraq, 2009-10. About 14,000 troops from the South Sound were in Iraq that year, including two Stryker brigades and the three-star I Corps headquarters. They deployed with elaborate plans to build up confidence in Iraqi security forces and in Iraq’s government.

They saw violence, but it was “episodic” instead of the daily toll from previous tours, Hodges said.

They cultivated relationships in ways they could not on their previous tours. Hodges still gets calls in the dead of night from an Iraqi colonel he supported in that 2009-10 tour. They don’t speak the same language, so the conversations don’t last long.

The Americans felt themselves making lasting gains. They saw Iraqis vote in large numbers that year. They talk about children they met who might have better opportunities ahead because Saddam’s dictatorship is gone.

Senior leaders around the Army tend to talk about the violence in Iraq as a “natural progression,” and that Americans should have expected it when they launched the invasion.

First the enemy targets U.S. forces, and then civilians as a legitimate government takes root, Flowers said. The Americans must balance their own security with respect to the country they’re occupying.

That thinking shapes discussions these days at Lewis-McChord, where the Army has one foot in Afghanistan and another looking to step into challenges along the Pacific Rim. It also makes Iraq veterans cautious in their hopes for Iraq’s future.

“They’re going to have a long fight ahead,” Bjerke said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/military

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