American forces likely will keep fighting in Afghanistan through the end of 2014 – three years later than the date President Barack Obama announced when he heralded his war plans last year – under a timeline unfurled at a NATO conference in Lisbon, Portugal, this weekend.
The new date sends a message to soldiers and airmen at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that they can expect to continue their role in a dangerous war zone over the next four years.
But while the shift to 2014 has been discussed widely in the media the past few weeks, it doesn’t appear to be triggering much talk among local service members yet.
Those stationed at the base have come to expect nearly continuous overseas assignments since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Many don’t see that trend changing despite the ongoing drawdown from Iraq and the proposal to scale back in Afghanistan.
“It’s always go,” said Capt. Dave Braun, 30, of Spanaway. He’s a pilot in the Lewis-McChord-based 62nd Airlift Wing who recently returned from a four-month assignment flying into Afghanistan.
Lewis-McChord today has more soldiers at home than since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. About 18,000 soldiers returned from overseas missions in the spring and summer. They’re scheduled to stay home for the next 18 months or more.
All signs suggest they should have the full recovery time they’ve been promised, commanding officers have said. That’s a change from the peak of the Iraq War, when combat deployments ran into one another with one-year turnaround times for many infantry units.
“Right now we are re-setting, and we’re really focused on re-integrating all of our families and our soldiers,” said Col. Charles Webster, who leads the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. His Stryker brigade has deployed to Iraq three times since 2003.
His soldiers are taking those orders to heart.
“Everything is in rest mode,” said Spc. Stacey Taylor, 22. He recently returned from Iraq’s Diyala province with the 3rd Brigade.
Taylor, like other soldiers contacted Friday in Tillicum and DuPont, hadn’t been following news about the proposed Afghanistan drawdown date.
“We’re infantry,” he said. “We’re going when they say we’re going.”
Since 2001, more than 106,000 soldiers have deployed for combat missions through Lewis-McChord. The base’s signature vehicle – the Stryker – is mostly associated with Iraq, but artillery and Special Forces units from Lewis-McChord have served regularly in Afghanistan.
Lewis-McChord’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division was the first Stryker unit to serve in Afghanistan. It returned home in July and was replaced by a Stryker brigade based in Germany. Defense contracts calling for Strykers with extra armor suggest that the eight-wheeled vehicles will continue to have a role in Afghanistan.
Webster says he’s tracking the Pentagon’s plans for Afghanistan, but he’s not shaping his training for a mission there because the 3rd Brigade has no deployment orders on the horizon.
“They’re going to reach Fort Lewis for additional Stryker brigades if we need them,” he said. “I think with our current training plan, we’ll be able to support any mission that may come our way.”
The new date for an Afghanistan drawdown is a shift from a plan the Obama administration announced last year to build a surge of American forces and then start to reduce their footprint by next summer.
Political leaders in the White House insist the original plan is still on the table. Vice President Joe Biden last week called 2014 the “drop-dead date” for Afghanistan and said the Defense Department could start bringing home its surge units by 2011.
But Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that plans remain more fluid and could call for a significant presence of American forces in Afghanistan through the end of 2014 and beyond.
“It does not mean that all U.S. or coalition forces would necessarily be gone by that date,” he said.
The same could be said for Iraq, where about 48,000 American soldiers continue to serve in what’s called an advisory role even though the combat mission formally ended when the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division returned to Lewis-McChord in September. All American soldiers are expected to leave Iraq by the end of next year, but the Iraqi government could ask for some to stay.
Airmen flying out of McChord field expect that they’ll be conducting missions throughout the Middle East well past the announced drawdown dates for both Iraq and Afghanistan. They say any American presence in those countries would require them to keep running supply and medical missions, as they’ve been doing since 2001.
Chief Master Sgt. Dave Harper of the 62nd Airlift Wing said the demands don’t surprise new airmen, though he remembers the days when McChord pilots had the luxury of scheduled missions to Pacific nations that lasted a couple of months.
“The airmen coming in grew up with this. They’re actually a lot more informed. They know what they’re getting into,” said Harper, 49, of DuPont.
Crews flying C-17 Globemasters out of McChord Field usually are assigned a four-month deployment about every 16 months. Those assignments, coupled with other humanitarian and combat missions, could keep them away from home for more than 200 days a year.
“We know things are never going back the way they were,” said Lt. Col. Mark Hahn of the 446th Reserve Airlift Wing.
A schedule like that can take a toll on airmen.
“People are people. I see guys come to me and say ‘I need a break from this for my family,’ and they go on to do great things for the Air Force,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Ritter, who coordinated the largest airdrop in the Afghanistan war during his most recent deployment last summer.
“Then there are days when you go out and do a great mission and you say, ‘this is it, this is why I’m here,’” he said.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/military