As the top military officer in the Northwest, Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza has more employees reporting to him in the Puget Sound region than Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.
But when he travels north to King County, he sometimes gets befuddled questions about what goes on inside the gates at one of the West Coast’s largest military bases.
“I hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, JBLM, that’s one of those seven exits off I-5. I’ve never been there,’ ” the I Corps commander told a group of Seattle business leaders during a May visit to the base.
Lanza, a former Army public affairs officer who came to the South Sound as a division commander, has been trying for the past four years to make JBLM mean more to Western Washington residents than just a series of highway exits.
He says yes when he gets a request to send a 20-ton Stryker to Seattle’s Seafair, or to staff a late-notice military appreciation parade. He’s close with the University of Washington, nurturing a relationship that’s leading to academic fellowships for JBLM officers.
And, he’s in regular contact with the South Sound’s mayors and business leaders, working to cultivate programs that would help troops leaving the military land jobs as civilians.
On the surface, Lanza’s out to bridge a military-civilian divide that he worries has deepened since the nation moved to an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War. JBLM, the Army’s most urban infantry base, gives Lanza a platform to demystify the military for civilians from Portland to Seattle.
“It’s not a traditional military community, but it’s a fantastic military community,” said Lanza, who commanded soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Riley in Kansas before arriving at JBLM in 2012. “You’re near a large university. We’re near a large, urban area that we’re able to leverage. We’re able to enhance not only our learning, but their learning as well.”
Lanza has a second aim in his extensive outreach campaign. It gives him an opportunity to introduce civilians to upcoming Army training requests that people outside JBLM may notice and reject if they’re not given enough information about the new events.
I hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, JBLM, that’s one of those seven exits off I-5. I’ve never been there.’
Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza
Last summer, JBLM put forward two controversial training proposals. One is seeking permission to land Army helicopters at high elevations in national forests; the other would allow soldiers to shoot occasional training rounds for its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) at JBLM, a weapon that today is fired only at the sprawling Yakima Training Center.
“It’s very important to do this early on,” Lanza said.
“The more we are able to get our message out, people will be able to say, ‘I understand why you need to train at night, why you need to go to different places.’ What we want is buy-in, for people to say, ‘We’ve been briefed on this. We’re part of this.’ ”
Little time for outreach during wars
Lanza’s approach may sound like common sense for the leader of an urban military base that employs more than 55,000 active-duty troops, Reservists and civilians.
In fact, Army leaders in the South Sound have a long history of connecting with the cities that surround JBLM. The military also has a year-round community relations office staffed by civilian employees who maintain relationships with civilian leaders long after commanders rotate on to other assignments.
However, Lanza’s outreach stands out because the Army had little spare time for community relations during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. JBLM’s I Corps headquarters embarked on two yearlong deployments between 2009 and 2012, leaving few people behind to keep the public informed about its plans.
27,000 Number of active-duty soldiers at JBLM
With less time to connect with local governments and less effort spent on informing neighbors about changes in training, JBLM upset some Pierce and Thurston County residents with off-base training for a new helicopter brigade in 2012.
It didn’t help that the Army misinterpreted its own environmental study on helicopter training, sending new Apache attack helicopters on routes over Lacey and Olympia that had not been studied by federal agencies.
“There needed to be a greater synergy” informing the public about the new helicopters when they began arriving in 2011, said DuPont Mayor Mike Courts. He’s a retired colonel who started working on the helicopter additions for I Corps in 2008. He deployed with the corps to Iraq in 2009 and went into local politics after he left the Army.
Stung by the backlash over the off-base helicopter routes, JBLM adopted a much more rigorous public relations plan last summer for its new aviation and artillery requests.
In both cases, the Army broadly advertised its plans. It hosted public forums on the artillery proposal in DuPont, and agreed to change its helicopter proposal after environmentalists rallied to block it.
Although both proposals are delayed, military advocates in the South Sound believe the Army’s openness ultimately will help it find a compromise that will allow the training to go forward one day.
“The key to relationships is trust, and the key to trust is communication. The thing that breaks trust is surprises,” said retired Maj. Gen. James Collins, a former I Corps deputy commander who is the civilian aide to the secretary of the army for Washington state.
New division adds oversight
Lanza came to JBLM in October 2012 to launch its new 7th Infantry Division headquarters. The Army built the command to bring more oversight to JBLM after its rapid growth during the Iraq War, when its population of active-duty soldiers almost doubled.
The creation of the headquarters also happened to follow two incidents in which JBLM soldiers murdered civilians in Afghanistan, and one high-profile scandal at Madigan Army Medical Center in which soldiers alleged doctors altered their behavioral health diagnoses to shortchange them on veterans benefits.
The key to relationships is trust, and the key to trust is communication. The thing that breaks trust is surprises.
Retired Maj. Gen. James Collins
Back then, Lanza and then-I Corps Commander Gen. Robert Brown re-energized community outreach efforts that had been set aside during the wars. They also turned their attention to improving discipline, leadership and training.
Inside the base, soldiers noticed a focus on the basics of military training. Outside the gates, people who watch the base closely saw an improvement in how its leaders interacted with the public.
“When 7th ID stood up, part of that was to get a handle on things because the chain of command (had been) too flat, which is very unusual in government,” said Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson. “That really helped because there’s a connection (for civilians) with the division when the corps is gone (for a military exercise).”
Anderson worked with Lanza and Lanza’s wife, Madeline, to support Rally Point 6, the Lakewood nonprofit group that tries to connect veterans with jobs and social services. He noticed that Lanza took his work representing the base seriously when he saw the general showing up at community events immediately after traveling overseas.
“He’ll come see us before he goes home to see his wife,” Anderson said, laughing.
Lanza has had an unusually long run as a senior Army officer in the South Sound because he gained a fast promotion to lieutenant general and commander of JBLM’s I Corps in February 2014, meaning he stayed here for a second consecutive command position rather than moving back to the Pentagon or to another Army post. That gave him a running start in understanding the political landscape in Western Washington and in building relationships with civilian leaders.
Connecting with business, academics
Last month, he arranged a small tour of JBLM for members of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. They wanted to get a sense of the base’s economic impact, as well as to meet with soldiers and airmen.
“The size and scale of the operation is impressive,” said Ian Toner, 46, a member of the chamber who lives in Lakewood. He wanted to join the tour because he too is worried about a “military-civilian divide.”
“The more you can do to bridge that, the better,” he said.
If you think about sex assault, we both have young people on their first time away from home. We have the same issue, and we’re both trying to change the culture.
UWT Professor Lisa Hoffman
Lanza has been especially keen to develop partnerships with the University of Washington, both in Tacoma and in Seattle. Those efforts have yielded occasional forums at UWT where senior diplomats debate Pacific Rim foreign policy with academics and high-ranking generals.
They’ve also prompted the Army to invite UW professors and experts to JBLM to participate in exercises that aim to reduce suicides and sexual assaults. Lanza characterized those trends as issues that threaten both the Army and modern universities.
“If you think about sex assault, we both have young people on their first time away from home. We have the same issue, and we’re both trying to change the culture,” said Lisa Hoffman, a UWT professor of urban studies and assistant to the chancellor on special projects.
Last year, the Army for the first time allowed one of its Army War College fellows to conduct an academic study in partnership with UW and UWT. With the exception of a fellowship at Stanford, those assignments tend to go to East Coast universities.
Lt. Col. Jaren Price, a military intelligence officer, received the first UW-Army War College fellowship. Two more are expected to follow next year. Price used his time to study changes in Japan’s defense policy, a key concern for JBLM’s I Corps now that it’s spending more time partnering with Pacific allies and less readying for deployments to the Middle East.
Price presented his findings at UWT last month to an audience that included Lanza, Hoffman and UW Jackson School of International Studies Director Resat Kasaba. “This relationship is huge,” Lanza told the group. “This doesn’t happen without your collective support.”