A couple of dozen dirt-caked infantrymen filed into a tent to talk over the battle drill they had just finished. They’d looked good as they blew through an obstacle course with machine guns, mortars and rockets firing live rounds.
Now their commander wanted them to know it.
“I like the attitude, I like the behavior,” Col. David Foley told them. “That didn’t just happen. You worked your butts off to get to this point.”
Foley delivered his remarks to a small group of his soldiers in Central Washington’s high desert last week. But his words could apply to thousands more troops at Joint Base Lewis-McChord who lately have been spending several months away from their families at military exercises around the world.
They’re finding that being home from combat isn’t the same thing as being home.
They’re in the field for three to six months every year at training events — a demanding pace that soldiers say is as intense as when they were preparing to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“I haven’t really since a difference in training” from the peak war years, said Sgt. Alec Brinkman, an Afghanistan veteran who has spent about two months away from home at Army training events since he was married last August.
If his baby comes on time, he’ll have about three weeks at home this summer as a new dad before he heads back in the field for another major exercise in Southern California.
That’s OK, he said.
“This is my passion,” said Brinkman, 24, who grew up in Yelm.
The idea behind the rigorous training is to keep soldiers combat-ready in case of an emergency. It’s “readiness for the sake of deterrence,” said Lt. Col. Teddy Kleisner, a battalion commander in Foley’s brigade.
Yet the exercises are taking place as senior officers voice concerns about combat readiness across the Army. They say budget constraints in a rapidly shrinking Army are not giving them enough resources to keep active-duty forces available for deployments.
“We are unable to generate readiness for unknown contingencies,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told an Association of the United States Army conference last month.
Despite the tight training budget, many JBLM units haven’t really slowed down since they came home from their last big deployments to Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013. Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, JBLM’s senior Army officer, has said that trend should hold through 2016, when another round of budget cuts could hit.
Take Maj. Lou Kangas, for instance. He’s a senior staff officer for JBLM’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He spent six months away from home last year at exercises that took him to Yakima in the winter, the Mojave Desert in the summer and East Asia in the fall.
“That was generally a very, very aggressive year for the brigade,” said Kangas, 37. “It was constant.”
The Pacific exercises were a morale-boosting treat for several hundred 2nd Brigade soldiers, Kangas said. They took troops to Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan. The brigade treated the mission like a deployment, setting up family support groups in the same way the Army does for combat missions.
“There’s a lot of folks who’ve never deployed,” he said. “Soldiers always enjoy training. Morale after Pacific Pathways was sky high. They got in great shape, they trained with other nations. They got to go to new countries.”
The majority of soldiers in the brigade who did not get to travel to Asia last year were just as busy in the field. The Army sent them to different exercises in Western states where they served as opposition forces in simulated battles testing a mix of intelligence, National Guard and Reserve units.
The pace can take a toll on families. A December survey from the Military Times family of publications found that 49 percent of respondents said the demands placed on them had increased significantly or somewhat since 2009, when the military was deeply enmeshed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re always on the other side of the Mount Rainier (at the Yakima Training Center) when the family is back home,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Turbeville, 44, the senior enlisted leader in the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
Turbeville joined his battalion in December. It has made two trips to the Yakima Training Center since then. It’s getting ready for a tougher challenge this summer at the National Training Center, which could prepare it for more assignments on the Pacific Rim.
Last week he observed groups of soldiers make their way through challenges meant to simulate how they’d overcome an enemy to seize a compound. It was a complicated test that allowed a company commander to plan an attack using drones, helicopters, cannons, infantrymen in Strykers and engineers trained to clear mines.
The last to go was a company led by Capt. Steve Krippel, 32. His team of about 150 soldiers cleared the course in about an hour — half the time of other units in Foley’s brigade.
Krippel is an Iraq veteran who joined the Stryker brigade after serving with an Army Ranger battalion and with the 101st Airborne Division. He’s a father to two girls and is married to another Army officer.
“This tempo is on par with my experience in the 101st and with the Rangers,” he said. “When I was with both of those organizations, we were training to go to war. In some ways, it’s more difficult training to be ready. Instead of training for a specific task, you have to be ready for anything.”
His team got a good amount of praise for its afternoon work last week.
Then they left Foley’s tent to make plans for another run scheduled that night.