Brigade will work across Iraq

About 1,000 soldiers from Fort Lewis’ newest brigade stood on the parade grounds of Watkins Field as they marked their upcoming deployment with friends and family.

The feeling of the spotlight is something the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade shouldn’t get used to.

Over the next year, these soldiers will be spread across Iraq and work largely in the shadows, collecting and analyzing an array of intelligence.

“Everywhere where there are U.S. forces, we’re going to be supporting them,” brigade commander Col. Robert Whalen said after the unit cased its colors Wednesday.

The year-old brigade, the third of its kind in the Army, will attach to other units that need their skills, including three other brigades deployed from Fort Lewis. The 201st will coordinate spying from human sources, intercept cell phone and other electronic messages, do counterintelligence work, manage Arabic linguists, and monitor and target enemy positions, among other specialized tasks.

The unit is the successor of the 201st Military Intelligence Brigade, a mix of active-duty, Reserve and National Guard soldiers who had been stationed at Fort Lewis since 1987. On July 3, 2008, the old 201st was deactivated and replaced by an all-active-duty version.

Whalen, who spent time in Morocco earlier this year learning Arabic, said the brigade went through grueling training at times. It has been in near-daily communication the past six months with the various units it will help, Whalen said, so the learning curve will be short when the 201st starts its work in Iraq in late October.

Whalen said much of this work will focus on supporting national elections on Jan. 30. The balloting will provide a litmus test of security in Iraq as the American presence diminishes.

“Everyone knows job one in Iraq for (Multi-National Corps-Iraq) over the next months is going to be the elections,” Whalen said. “If those go off smoothly, that sets the stage for everything else, like the drawdown of troops.”

Many members of the 201st will partner with Iraqi security forces to train them in collecting intelligence – one of the fields where Baghdad still relies heavily on the American military.

The brigade’s Charlie Troop, 38th Cavalry Regiment specializes in long-range surveillance, training to covertly take photos and video of enemy positions. In Iraq, the soldiers will work alongside counterparts in the Iraqi army to help secure the country’s porous borders.

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758