Some of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's most elite and secretive soldiers took to Stadium High School on Friday night to shed some light on their latest deployment to Afghanistan.
After 10 years of war, the event was the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment’s first post-deployment awards ceremony to take place in a public setting. Rangers said they hope the appearance will help the public get a better understanding of the Special Operations.
“To a lot of people, we’re kind of like this dark matter nobody understands,” said Capt. Brendan McCarthy, 26, of Tacoma. “It’s good to be here showcasing ourselves because, I think, we are something that’s pretty special.”
The Rangers’ movements are kept confidential. Lewis-McChord doesn’t announce its deployments or its homecomings, as it does for other units at the base.
The battalion has deployed 13 times since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, usually for missions lasting about four months. Normally, it gains attention in books years after combat ends or when fatal mistakes unfold.
“They deserve more,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. David Hodne, acknowledging the nature of the Rangers’ classified missions.
He named at least four soldiers who’ve served on all of the battalion’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There is nothing routine about these deployments,” he said. “There is nothing routine about saying goodbye to your wife and children.”
The ceremony took place on a significant day for the battalion. It was the three-year anniversary of the death of one of its members, Sgt. 1st Class David McDowell, who suffered fatal wounds fighting in Afghanistan.
Hodne handed out awards to 46 Rangers, including three Bronze Star medals for valor, 21 Purple Hearts and 14 Army Commendation medals for a deployment that generally ran from October to February. Capt. McCarthy earned one of the Army Commendation medals.
The highest honors went to soldiers who put their lives at risk to protect fellow Rangers.
Sgt. Eric Echavarria of Tacoma earned one of the Bronze Stars for his “exceptional leadership and total disregard to his own safety.” On Sept. 8, Echavarria, 30, took an exposed position under enemy fire to protect the landing zone for a helicopter coming to rescue a wounded Ranger.
“I was doing what I should’ve been doing,” Echavarria said. “They would’ve done it for me.”
The 100-year-old stadium lent some extra pomp to Friday’s ceremony. Rangers stood lined up in five companies across the football stadium. Their voices echoed around the cement steps as they followed their commander and top noncommissioned officer in declaring part of the Ranger creed.
“I accept the fact that as a Ranger, my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier,” they shouted.
As the Rangers hugged their friends and family in the stadium, their battalion’s sixth company was away training for their next deployment to Afghanistan.