Work has been fairly relaxed for thousands of infantrymen since they returned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord this summer from yearlong assignments in the Middle East. They've been going to classes, checking their gear and doing physical training in the mornings.
Anything more complicated would require the soldiers to have possession of their Strykers – the 21-ton combat vehicles they left behind in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.
The pace is about to pick up, with the base delivering new vehicles to its three Stryker brigades. By the end of the year, more than 900 Strykers should be rolling around the base and on South Sound roads headed to the Army’s training grounds near Yakima.
The arrival of the vehicles is one more sign of the base coming back to life after sending some 18,000 soldiers to combat zones last year. But the Strykers are coming so quietly, the public will hardly notice – and war protesters won’t have a chance to target local ports, as they have in the past.
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The troops are returning to a relatively new pool
of Strykers because of changes the Defense Department and a key Army contractor are making to save money on transportation and repairs.
The hub for Stryker maintenance and upgrades at Lewis-McChord is the base’s Stryker processing center, a compound that’s one part greasy mechanic’s shop and one part laboratory where General Dynamics employees weld their latest improvements to constantly changing war vehicles. It’s where mechanics put the finishing touches on Strykers just before they get into the hands of infantrymen.
“We take care of the Stryker when it comes in new, and we take care of the Stryker when it’s a little older,” said John Burns, who oversees work at the center and brags about vehicles that have logged a million miles.
“We were very intent on saying that if a Stryker can be fixed, it should be fixed,” he said. “We’ve had one vehicle they call the ‘Stonewall Jackson.’ It’s been blown up and repaired and handed back to the soldiers three times.”
Every few days, dozens of soldiers convene in his mechanics yard to claim their Strykers. They rifle through like-new vehicles, checking to make sure they run properly and contain all their equipment – from tire blocks to fire extinguishers and sledge hammers.
“With these, we can do our jobs,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Label, 27, a 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division soldier from Salem, Ore., who spent the past year in Iraq’s Diyala province.
Without the eight-wheeled carriers, Label says, he’s been “standing around in classes.”
The route from the Middle East to Lewis-McChord has been different than in past deployments, when Strykers came directly to their home base for major maintenance.
This time, the 3rd Brigade handed its Strykers to a Hawaii-based brigade now in Iraq. The 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division turned over its vehicles to a Germany-based brigade now deployed in Afghanistan. (The 2nd Brigade was flagged as the 5th Brigade during its yearlong deployment to southern Afghanistan.)
The Army took replacement Strykers at Fort Irwin, Calif., for the two Lewis-McChord brigades, which saved the costs of shipping vehicles to and from the battlefield. Afghanistan is a particularly expensive destination because Strykers must be flown into the landlocked country.
Meanwhile, Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is keeping its old Strykers; the soldiers last saw them as they headed for ships in Kuwait. They’re now lined up for overhauls at the Army Depot in Anniston, Ala., where General Dynamics has centralized much of its Stryker production.
That work was done at Lewis-McChord in the past. In 2005, General Dynamics carried out a share of a $69 million program to reset Strykers at Fort Lewis as they came home from two years on the ground in Iraq. The process repeated in 2008 with a $43 million contract to overhaul battle-scarred Strykers at Fort Lewis.
This time, General Dynamics steered work from an $84 million repair contract to Anniston, which swelled its staff to restore the 4th Brigade’s Strykers and prepare for efforts to add armor to other Stryker models. The company is working on a new hull design to give soldiers more protection from roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
“We generally move work around to where we can accommodate it best, get it done as quickly as possible and get it back out to the field,” said General Dynamics spokeswoman Robin Porter. “Strykers are getting up in age, and it’s time to do a reset, which takes a little more sophistication.”
Despite the push to build up the Anniston depot, General Dynamics has more than 250 employees at Lewis-McChord, and significant maintenance continues to take place there, Burns said.
Some of the changes mechanics make locally include tripling the electrical output of the alternators in Stryker engines and ripping out bench seats to replace them with buckle-in chairs. The extra juice was made necessary by powerful electronics soldiers use to stay informed about the battlefield; the new chairs are intended to minimize leg and back injuries that sometimes result from roadside bombs, Burns said.
Some adjustments are so new that 3rd Brigade soldiers fresh from Iraq haven’t yet seen them.
Staff Sgt. Label pointed to a model fitted with a heavy sheet of metal under its carriage. It’s a temporary fix until the Army can send its newly designed “double V” hull Strykers into the field.
The Stryker was parked in a pool of vehicles that could be sent to Afghanistan by air on a moment’s notice.
The extra armor wasn’t on the vehicles Label drove in Iraq. He inspected it with an eye for any trouble it could pose to crews repairing a Stryker in the field. He figured soldiers might have a more difficult time getting a look under the carriage.
But he recognized its obvious advantages.
“That’s probably going to save some lives,” he said.
NOT THROUGH PORTS
The new workflow for Lewis-McChord vehicles means they likely won’t come to Washington by way of the ports of Olympia or Tacoma, where war protesters previously tried to block the return of Strykers from combat zones. Burns said they’d come by road or rail.
That could spare some of the uproar that has followed the return of Stryker vehicles in the past. War protesters have held demonstrations whenever Strykers came through the ports, at times lying in front of the vehicles. Those protests yielded 14 arrests in August 2008 at the Port of Tacoma and in Lakewood, 37 arrests in March 2007 at the Port of Tacoma, and 60 arrests in November 2007 at the Port of Olympia.
Drew Hendricks, an activist from Olympia, has been tracking Defense Department contracts and other public information to speculate on the return route for Strykers. He concluded they won’t come by sea.
“Every time there was a major demonstration in Olympia, the military reduced its use of the Port of Olympia by a factor,” said Hendricks, who was arrested at a 2006 port demonstration.
Protesters could look for another avenue to draw attention to the war if the Strykers don’t come through the ports, he said.
“They haven’t ended the occupation of Iraq yet. We haven’t really had a victory until the people of Iraq have been made whole,” Hendricks said.
Base spokesman Joe Piek declined to address the protesters’ plans. He said the Army weighs a number of factors when it draws routes to deliver equipment to Lewis-McChord.
“We take a look at a variety of methods – port, rail, trucking – and consider them depending on what the mission is,” he said. “Our goal when we move vehicles is to do it as safely and expeditiously as possible.”
No matter how the vehicles arrive, South Sound drivers likely will start noticing Strykers on public roads late this year as soldiers ratchet up their drills and head to Army training grounds near Yakima.
Convoys typically run with 12 vehicles, and drivers are advised not to get between the Strykers.
Lewis-McChord has a license with the state Department of Transportation to run the convoys. It tries to time the trips to avoid peak hours on Interstate 5, Piek said.
The state does not expect formal notice of each convoy, DOT spokeswoman Alice Fiman said.
Soldiers are looking forward to those drives. Label said it’s common to see people honking and waving as they roll down the highway.
“You want to honk back, but you can’t because you’ll scare them,” he said, laughing.
Label was with two 3rd Brigade companies that claimed their Strykers on Tuesday at the General Dynamics yard on Lewis-McChord.
Loose equipment was laid out on blankets while soldiers worked through a checklist to make sure each piece was where it belonged. Technicians checked on-board computers. The highest-ranking soldier on each vehicle – usually a lieutenant – would have to sign for each Stryker, effectively taking control of millions of dollars worth of machinery.
“Once we sign for it, we get to pay for it,” joked Sgt. James Nash, 31.
THE RIGHT MIX
He and other soldiers in Stryker units swear by their combat vehicles. They say Strykers give them the right mix of maneuverability, fire power and protection to fight in urban environments such as Iraq’s. They also like that the vehicles have enough room for soldiers to pile into another Stryker if one becomes disabled.
“It’s like a mobile home,” Label said, adding that his platoon has lived in its Strykers for a week at a time. His only contact with a base came over the radios.
Now that his company has vehicles at Lewis-McChord, Label said soldiers can begin driving to shooting ranges and teaching new recruits how to operate in a Stryker.
One lesson will center on the damage they can take.
“It takes a good hit,” said Nash, who’s from Fayetteville, N.C. He survived two roadside bomb attacks on his first deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Brigade in 2006. Both times the carrier made it back to base.
“That’s all I want to be in for the rest of my career,” he said. “I want to stay Stryker if I can help it.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military