10,000 from Fort Lewis have missions extended

About 10,000 Fort Lewis soldiers serving in or heading to Iraq and Afghanistan will have their deployments extended three months under a new policy that the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said all active-duty Army units deployed in support of the wars in those nations will serve tours up to 15 months, instead of 12 months, effective immediately.

The policy ensures that soldiers will be home at least a year before they have to deploy again, and Gates acknowledged that it is necessary to sustain forces stretched by the demands of the wars.

Olympia-area soldiers and families had heard rumors of an extension for weeks, but the announcement caught many by surprise. Unit commanders weren’t able to notify soldiers ahead of time because news of the policy was leaked to everyone at once, Gates said.

The policy affects two Stryker combat brigades from Fort Lewis: the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which was expected back from Iraq in late June or early July, and the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which recently deployed to the Middle East. Each brigade has about 4,000 soldiers.

It also affects the 864th Engineer Combat Battalion (Heavy), which is serving in Afghanistan, its third overseas deployment since March 2003.

“For the families and loved ones of the brigade’s soldiers, this is not easy news to swallow, and their reactions are predictably mixed,” said Maj. Robert Bennett, rear detachment commander for 3rd Brigade, which now is expected back in October. “It was not unexpected news. We had prepared for this announcement, and we are ready to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

Fort Lewis officials said they will provide support, answer questions and work through the litany of issues confronting soldiers and family members affected by the extension. On Wednesday night, they held a briefing with leaders of family-readiness groups so the information they shared could be passed along to families.

Melissa Toy, a family-readiness group leader whose husband is a sergeant with 3rd Brigade’s 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, said the announcement won’t mean any drastic change of plans because she and her husband expected an extension.

“Obviously, I’d like my husband home sooner than later but recognize that the military does need to leverage its resources the best it can, and they do have a mission to accomplish, and we’ll support them until they do that,” she said.

Without the extension, Gates said during a news conference, the Army would have had to deploy five active-duty brigades without giving them a full year of rest at home.

“I believe it is fair to all soldiers that all share the burden equally,” he said, according to a transcript.

The defense secretary said the policy will remain in place until conditions on the ground allow the Army to shift back to a cycle of 12 months deployed and 12 months at home and, ultimately, to a cycle of 12 months deployed and two years at home.

Until then, families at Fort Lewis and elsewhere will wait for their soldiers to return after extended deployments.

“We do understand that our husbands and our soldiers have a mission to do, and they’ll be home when the mission is complete, and when they do come home, we’ll be extremely happy,” said Melissa Townsend, senior family-readiness group adviser for 3rd Brigade and the wife of the brigade’s commander.