STRYKER BRIGADE FELT STRAIN EVEN BEFORE IT LEFT FOR BATTLE
By Hal Bernton
July 29, 2007
[PHOTO CAPTION: The 4th Brigade, formally activated in 2006, is staffed with a mix of transfers from other units and more-recent recruits. At Fort Lewis, brigade and other Army officials have worked hard to push more soldiers to the front lines as they heal or emerge from disciplinary proceedings still deemed able to serve.]
When a Fort Lewis combat brigade hit the ground in Iraq this spring, it was already showing the strains of a volunteer Army in the fifth year of war.
Some 700 soldiers had injuries, illnesses, legal problems, or other issues that prevented them from joining the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which has been tapped for a frontline role in this year's expanded military campaign.
The brigade has a target strength of about 4,000 soldiers. Army officials acknowledge that the number of sidelined soldiers was considerably higher than in earlier deployments by other Fort Lewis combat brigades.
Brigade officials say that staffing was a significant concern during their first few months of duty in Iraq this year.
The problem is not "unique just to this brigade," brigade commander Col. Jon Lehr said in a telephone interview from Iraq. "It is a problem that will be experienced by future deployments."
An Army spokesman did not respond to requests for information about staffing levels of other units.
But some high-ranking Pentagon officials also have warned of the staffing challenges facing the Army.
Last December, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, then the Army's chief of staff, warned Congress that the service "will break" under the pressures of combat deployments. The Pentagon is proposing to expand the size of the Army by 30,000 soldiers, creating a standing force of 547,000 by 2012.
Pressures on the Army have been building as the Iraq war drags on. More than 3,640 military personnel have died in the war; more than 35,000 wounded and sick have been evacuated.
Other soldiers who complete their deployments may return with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, or other medical problems, and the Army has stepped up efforts to screen out those who should not redeploy.
These casualties come on top of the training injuries and other mishaps that occur even in peacetime.
Brigade officials cited medical problems as one of the big reasons for staffing shortfalls.
"The nature of this war has increased dramatically the number of injured personnel unable, either temporarily or permanently, to continue combat operations -- these are included in the 'higher number' of soldiers you are asking about," wrote Maj. Shawn Garcia, a brigade spokesman in Iraq, in a written response to an inquiry from the *Seattle Times*.
Garcia cited other major reasons why soldiers were left behind in April when the brigade headed to Iraq:
• Some soldiers who transferred into the brigade had already fought in Iraq or Afghanistan within the past 12 months. They are required to have at least one year of downtime between combat tours, so they were not ready to head out in April.
"These soldiers deserve this refit time and they are getting it," Garcia said.
• Misconduct allegations entangled some soldiers in legal problems, such as court-martials or other disciplinary action. Some soldiers with relatively minor infractions might be able to deploy but others, such as those found to have used drugs or involved in repeated alcohol-related offenses, could not.
"Let me assure you every soldier back at Fort Lewis is there for a bona fide reason, even if it is not a 'positive' one," Garcia wrote.
The 4th Brigade, formally activated in 2006, is staffed with a mix of transfers from other units and more recent recruits who joined after graduating from basic training.
It was originally scheduled to deploy for the first time later in the spring. But the date was moved up by more than 30 days as part of President Bush's campaign to bolster the number of troops in Iraq.
"The early departure date did have an effect on us because we didn't get a chance to work off as many of those medicals and some of those disciplinary actions," Lehr said.
At Fort Lewis, the brigade initially had enough soldiers to meet more than 105 percent of the authorized staffing, according to Army officials.
Army officials said some 700 soldiers were initially left behind.
Citing security issues, they declined to comment on how many brigade soldiers are now in Iraq. They note that situation has improved, with about 300 soldiers joining the brigade since April.
In Iraq, brigade soldiers patrol in armored Stryker vehicles, and have been involved in grueling missions in Baghdad and other areas outside the capital city as part of their 15-month extended tour of duty.
Some have been fighting in Diyala province, where the Army earlier this summer launched a major campaign to try to flush out Sunni militants linked to al-Qaida. Part of the brigade has been fighting Shiite extremists in Husseiniyah, a city on the northern outskirts of Baghdad where the situation was so tense earlier this month that the unit set up a five-day blockade.
As of last week, 17 soldiers from the brigade had died in combat. More than 170 soldiers have been wounded, with more than 30 requiring evacuation.
Brigade officials said that the troop shortfall did not prevent the unit from accomplishing its missions, with Lehr praising his troops as "the greatest generation of soldiers I have ever seen."
But Lehr frequently worried about troop strength: "It was always a consideration in everything we planned. It did have an effect on us."
One artillery unit fighting in the troubled Shiite sector was hit particularly hard by the initial staffing shortages.
"They did deploy at a lower level of manning than I have seen a unit deploy in my career [over 17 years]," Garcia wrote in another e-mail. "Frankly, many would call it unacceptable, but the need of the Army and the nation at that time was great."
Back at Fort Lewis, brigade and other Army officials have worked hard to push more soldiers to the front lines as they heal or emerge from disciplinary proceedings still deemed able to serve.
They also are "working aggressively to properly separate" from the Army those soldiers who are undeployable, according to Garcia. As those soldiers leave the brigade, they free up slots for other soldiers who can serve in Iraq.
At Fort Lewis, some of soldiers with legal problems are recent recruits. Others found trouble after their homecoming from the war.
The 4th Brigade's Sgt. Jose Gandia is a combat veteran who served in Iraq last year with a Puerto Rico National Guard unit. He survived two bomb attacks, one of which hit with enough force to puncture his eardrum and trigger severe headaches.
Since his return, Gandia said his biggest problem has been hyperalertness and sleeplessness that he attributes to the after-effects of combat stress. Gandia said he began binge drinking upon his return, and that his drinking intensified at Fort Lewis as he contemplated another tour in Iraq.
In June, he was supposed to join the 4th Brigade's short-staffed artillery battalion. By then, he had already been arrested three times for driving under the influence of alcohol and was serving time in the King County Jail.
Gandia says the Army has proposed a misconduct separation from the Army, which could make it much more difficult for him to get veterans benefits. If Gandia rejects the offer, he fears the Army will try to court-martial him or seek even harsher penalties.
"They want you to sign the paperwork, and get you out," he said.
The Army is scrambling to fill empty slots, and in recent years has increased the number of waivers granted for recruits with misdemeanors or other specific types of criminal conduct. In the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, nearly 12 percent of recruits were granted such waivers, compared to less than 5 percent in 2003.
The recruiting goal for the year is 80,000 active-duty soldiers, same as in the past two years, according to an Army recruiting spokesman. The Pentagon expansion plan would not kick in until next year.
Some say the Bush administration has been far too slow to expand the force at a time when they are asking soldiers to serve 15-month combat tours rather than 12-month tours.
"It is just unconscionable to impose that kind of regime on the Army, and not immediately and dramatically increase the size of the Army," said retired Maj. General Paul Eaton, who served in Iraq.
Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.