Sgt. Joshua Perlinger didn’t have to think much about how to fix the radio equipment he brought home from his first two Afghanistan deployments. He’d hand it over to contractors who would repair or replace it.
Those days are over now that Perlinger is home from his latest combat tour. The Army’s push to rein in spending has him and other Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers getting their hands greasy as they take more responsibility for maintaining gear, from small radios to 20-ton Stryker vehicles.
They call it “getting back to basics” – building up skills that used to be common across the military before the decade-long wars.
“They’re getting us back to the way it used to be,” said Perlinger, 25, a three-tour combat veteran who joined the Army about six years ago.
It holds true for his squadron of fewer than 450 soldiers – the 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment – as well as for his full 4,000-member Stryker brigade and for other Army units at the base south of Tacoma.
Those extra hours in the mechanic’s yard are one of several ways this wave of Lewis-McChord troops who returned from Afghanistan last winter are adapting to an Army that does not expect them to go to war again anytime soon.
They’re being tapped for guard duty around the base. And they’re training for traditional Army missions that had been set aside for more urgent priorities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Their training budgets, meanwhile, are tightening, and commanders are drawing up plans to use less fuel, bullets and private contractors.
“That’s fine; as a matter of fact, I think it’s better,” said Lt. Col. Robert Halvorson of DuPont, the new commander of the 1-14 Cavalry.
These days, the vehicle yards and unit headquarters at Lewis-McChord are busy places. Some 8,000 Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers came home from Afghanistan between November and February, about half of those from Halvorson’s Stryker brigade – the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
They’re brushing up on basic Army tasks and getting equipment ready for more intense exercises later this spring and summer. Some are leaving the Army or moving on to new assignments at different posts.
“It’s time to get back in the field and start doing our job again,” said Sgt. Josh Robb, 32, of Olympia. He’s a five-time combat veteran in the cavalry squadron looking forward to a stretch without a deployment.
He grew so restless just after he came home from Afghanistan that he tried to take up crocheting with his wife. The hobby didn’t stick, he said.
Last month, Robb spent a damp morning inspecting the squadron’s Strykers with other soldiers. Those vehicles sat for a year at Lewis-McChord because the squadron used heavier, safer Strykers in Afghanistan.
They worked through a checklist with dozens of inspection points, using WD-40 and wrenches to whack open sticky hatches. Strykers can get a little moldy after spending a year outside under Northwest skies, Robb pointed out.
Soldiers looked through computers, axes, water jugs, medical kits and the sundry gear they store in their Strykers for each mission, moving methodically down the checklist to make sure they had everything the Army assigned them.
“It’s a painstaking, tedious process, but it lets everyone know what they’re in for,” said the squadron’s Sgt. Mike Treadway, 38, of Yelm.
Vehicle maintenance is a routine assignment for most military units, whether they’re on the ground in tanks or in the air in helicopters.
Strykers were different because they were developed just before the wars began. The 3rd Brigade, which formed up at Fort Lewis in the early 2000s, was the Army’s original Stryker brigade and deployed three times to Iraq, once to Afghanistan.
The Army paid manufacturer General Dynamics for the maintenance work during the wars, most recently at a cost of about $300 million a year.
That relationship is winding down and the Army expects Stryker soldiers to do the work that their counterparts perform across the service. Halvorson scheduled a two-week block in August just to focus on the vehicles.
Perlinger’s radios, too, are getting more attention from soldiers and less from military contractors. His team moved into a shabby building in the squadron’s vehicle yard after the deployment. The roof leaked, but the soldiers made due with a rubber bucket to catch the water as they sorted their communications gear.
Outside, three young soldiers took apart the radios in their Humvees. They intend to fix up their gear first before working through the rest of the squadron’s radios.
That work would have gone to a contractor after Perlinger’s first two deployments out of Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
“It’s more work for us, but it’s going to save us a lot of time,” Perlinger said, meaning that his team of radio specialists don’t have to wait on a contractor’s schedule.
This post-deployment period means something more than fixing equipment to soldiers who spent the past 11 years focused on repeated trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re gaining more time to recover from combat, but losing something in the sense of purpose the deployment cycles gave them.
“It’s a cultural change,” Robb said.
In the past, soldiers knew where they were heading, even if they didn’t have deployment orders.
“You had an end state. You had something to focus on,” Robb said. “Everything meshed real well.”
Now they’ll train just as hard for an uncertain goal.
“You get to the end of January” – when the cavalry squadron is expected to be recovered from Afghanistan and ready for a new mission – “and now what?” said Halvorson, who served on the last deployment as a brigade-level officer.
The wars also had a way of making just about every soldier do a similar job in combat. They mostly trained local forces and patrolled communities to gather information on insurgents. Now, they get to return to assignments that attracted them to certain Army occupations in the first place.
Perlinger, for instance, has to get his team in shape to handle radio transmissions between groups of soldiers who could not speak to each other because of physical barriers, like mountains. They had to do that only once in Afghanistan.
For the cavalry squadron as a whole, getting back to basics means training to speed out in front and scout enemy positions without drawing attention to itself. These reconnaissance missions are a specialty it did not use often on its recent tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m actually for the first time in years getting back to what I trained to do,” Robb said.
Halvorson anticipates leading the squadron for the next two years. He’s mindful of the budget constraints he faces, but he’s focused on preparing the soldiers for elaborate exercises in Yakima and Southern California by the end of this year.
He sounds excited when he talks about returning the squadron to its scouting roots.
“It’s going to be nothing but great,” he told his cavalrymen when he took command last month.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646