Three years ago Joint Base Lewis-McChord wore a reputation as the “nation’s most troubled” military installation and a “base on the brink,” according to some outside media observers.
Murders of innocents in Afghanistan, controversies over behavioral health diagnoses, and crimes committed at home dominated headlines as soldiers cycled through repeat combat tours.
The Army’s answer to those scandals came in the form of a new two-star headquarters, the 7th Infantry Division, which would finally give Lewis-McChord the same command structure as every other major Army base.
The Army’s announcement of the division’s launch came in April 2012, a month after Lewis-McChord’s Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 civilians in Afghanistan.
But the official line is that the Army was compelled to form a division at Lewis-McChord one year ago because war-related growth had swelled its soldier ranks and made it one of the military’s “super bases.”
“I was never told to come here and fix something,” 7th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza said in an October interview with The News Tribune. “I was told to come here and build something.”
The local division headquarters is not as big as the Army’s other 10 divisions; it doesn’t have even half as many soldiers, at least not yet. But under its watch, Lewis-McChord can cite several accomplishments, including:
• Assaults, drug-related charges and reports of driving under the influence of alcohol are down. Self-inflicted deaths are about steady, with 10 possible suicides under investigation this year, down from 13 in each of the previous two.
• The number of soldiers facing severe delays in the Army’s medical retirement system has shortened by 90 percent, easing their paths to civilian lives.
• Infantry commanders say they’re getting more guidance and more support to manage their troops.
• New standards governing how units track their gear have helped to turn up $25 million worth of equipment the Army didn’t know it had.
For senior soldiers, the improvements in oversight were long overdue. The Army developed 10 brigades led by full-bird colonels and added some 17,000 soldiers to Lewis-McChord from 2003 to 2010, essentially doubling the number of active-duty troops here.
Yet it did not have a two-star division headquarters to manage them in the Army’s traditional chain of command. Instead its higher, three-star corps command juggled multiple foreign assignments while looking after the mushrooming brigades.
“It was unbelievable to me to have the amount of people here and the amount of brigades without a division headquarters,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Del Byers, who served at then-Fort Lewis through 2003 with a Ranger battalion and returned in 2012 as Lanza’s senior enlisted adviser.
Retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a former Fort Lewis and I Corps commander, said command-and-control lapses really became an issue when the I Corps headquarters began deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009.
Prior to then, he said, a division would have been helpful, but the corps had enough resources to groom brigades and mind home station discipline.
“When the corps deploys, the rear detachment left behind is so thin it has to prioritize and often is unable to provide the same kind of stability and management that you can provide with a full headquarters,” said Dubik, now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.
In its first year, the 7th Division’s overarching goal has centered on standardizing discipline, property management, training and health policies across the seven brigades and more than 20,000 soldiers that fell under the division’s watch. Previously, each brigade had leeway to create its own interpretations of Army regulations.
Here’s a look at how the division got down to the ground level to change the way the Army manages troops at the West Coast’s largest military installation.
Two years ago, Capt. Andrew Hightower suspected that a soldier in his unit had committed fraud-related offenses. But Hightower could not get an Army attorney on the line to help him finish an investigation.
Back then, Hightower was a company commander in the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, an intelligence-gathering unit that now falls under the 7th Infantry Division.
Lewis-McChord’s highest headquarters, the I Corps, was deployed to Afghanistan. The corps’ attorneys were stretched thin assisting commanders across the base.
Hightower’s company would deploy before his soldier faced any discipline.
“Before the 7th Infantry Division, there was a definite lack of accountability,” Hightower said.
Discipline moves much faster at Lewis-McChord these days. The division added some 300 senior soldiers, including a full component of attorneys, law enforcement specialists and doctors. Those ranks of veteran soldiers enabled the division to set up courses where junior-level leaders such as captains, lieutenants and platoon sergeants can learn how to work with Army attorneys more effectively.
In 2012, Lewis-McChord’s Department of Emergency Services identified 1,114 service members with multiple offenses in their backgrounds. This year, that number dropped to 376.
Col. David Chase, Lewis-McChord’s highest-ranking military police officer, said he noticed the division’s impact as some 8,000 Stryker soldiers returned from Afghanistan in late 2012 and early this year.
The number of soldiers and military families in the community increased, yet criminal incidents declined, said Chase, commander of the 42nd Military Police Brigade.
That’s a contrast to previous homecoming years, when criminal incidents spiked as soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“What the division provides is closer supervision of the development of our leaders, and it provides the closer, more detailed procedures that keep soldiers on the straight and narrow of doing the right thing,” said Col. Michael Getchell, who recently returned from Afghanistan as commander of a Stryker unit, the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Sudden growth in Army units and repeated combat deployments caused Lewis-McChord to get especially rusty at one task: managing equipment.
Each brigade had its own system of tracking gear. In many cases, junior-ranking soldiers were responsible for millions of dollars of equipment because senior leaders were focused on getting troops ready for combat.
Meanwhile, the Army’s system for managing equipment grew increasingly complicated because of practices it developed to pass on gear to troops in war zones.
Lt. Col. Bill McClary and Command Sgt. Maj. Hector Meneses over the past year led a division-level drive to get a handle on the sometimes bewildering property books.
It was a painstaking process that had soldiers of all ranks throwing out unneeded equipment, filing orders for missing but essential gear, and documenting pieces that turned up during sweeps through their motor pools.
As a result, the division found $25 million worth of equipment the Army did not know it had at Lewis-McChord, reducing demand for replacement parts. The division sent another $5 million worth of gear to other installations.
Today, the 7th Infantry Division is the Army’s largest two-star command. It’s about to lose one of its 4,500-soldier Stryker brigades to an Army force reduction plan.
It also is about to lose its leader, as Lanza has been promoted to I Corps commander and will receive a third star.
Departing I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Robert Brown said the Army wants to add another 100 soldiers to the division headquarters staff.
So far, the division is not intended to be a deployable unit. It would have up to 400 headquarters soldiers under the program Brown described. Most divisions have more than 700 headquarters soldiers.
Bad things still happen at Lewis-McChord. In October, a 7th Infantry Division soldier allegedly stabbed one of his peers to death in Lakewood. Last week, another division soldier who said he suffered from post-traumatic stress allegedly murdered his girlfriend in their Lakewood apartment.
But the base appears to be on steadier ground than it was between 2010 and 2012.
“The stability that you’re seeing here is a reflection of the leadership that is here now and its focus on training, leadership oversight and all the things they’re supposed to do,” said Dubik, the former base commander.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com