About 3,900 soldiers formally said their goodbyes Friday at Fort Lewis, days before deploying on what will be the first Afghanistan assignment for a Stryker brigade and the largest troop commitment from the local Army post to the South Asian country.
The informal part came later. Spc. Ryan Young found his wife in the crowd and pulled her in for a long hug. Around the couple, people cried and smiled.
Others took photos or dashed to their cars, trying to savor every minute before heading to war.
Young, 28, admits having mixed emotions. He will miss his wife, Ashley, but he said a soldier’s duty is to fight when the nation calls.
“I had fun on my first deployment to Iraq,” the infantryman said. “But this one’s gonna be tough at times.”
Young is a member of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, whose yearlong deployment to Afghanistan is part of a larger push by the U.S. military to bolster a war effort that has struggled to keep the peace.
The 5-2 is the second of four major Fort Lewis units to deploy this year. I Corps left for Iraq in April to run daily operations of the U.S. military. It will be joined by the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division later this summer and by the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division this fall.
About half of the post’s 31,000 soldiers will be in Iraq or Afghanistan by year’s end.
“There is a special place in our country’s history for the warrior – a citizen who, in times of crisis, answers the nation’s call of duty and goes into harm’s way to destroy the enemies of the United States,” brigade commander Col. Harry Tunnell told his unit and hundreds of other people at the Watkins Field ceremony.
“We must never forget that the true protector of liberty often carries a rifle and bayonet and is willing to engage in close combat. The war against today’s Islamic, totalitarian enemy is no different.”
Tunnell, in an interview after the ceremony, said the brigade has trained 100 soldiers to speak Arabic and another 50 to speak Pashto. It also boasts much of the military’s latest technology, making it what Tunnell calls the “most advanced ground combat formation in history.”
The deployment comes almost three years after the 5th Brigade, the Army’s seventh and final Stryker brigade, began organizing. It was activated in April 2007 and received orders for Iraq in September 2008.
But in February, the Department of Defense announced it was redirecting the unit as part of the Obama administration’s buildup of about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan.
The brigade will serve in the country’s south as part of a NATO push to reclaim the gains that were lost in the years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001.
The same fighters uprooted by the United States have regrouped and restrengthened – often by organizing in the tribal areas of Pakistan – and today control wide swaths of countryside.
“Five-2, you are off to an important mission – a mission that is as hard as it is important,” Brig. Gen. Jeff Mathis, the acting Fort Lewis commander, said. “But in the United States Army, we do hard. Each of you individually, and all of you collectively, are ready.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758