It's hard to realize how much something is growing when you see it every day. -- That holds true for Pierce County residents, who may be surprised to learn how much Fort Lewis, Western Washington's premier military installation, has swelled in course of the Iraqi disaster. -- On Monday, the fourth anniversary of the unleashing of the "shock and awe" phase of U.S. aggression against Iraq, the Seattle Times focused on key role that Fort Lewis, in Pierce County, is playing in the war. -- "Fort Lewis has undergone dramatic growth since the beginning of the war, much of it spurred by the Army's more than $10 billion investment in forming the Stryker brigades," wrote Hal Bernton. -- At the beginning of the war, Fort Lewis was "largely on the sidelines." -- Now, "[t]hree of the seven [Stryker] brigades are based at Fort Lewis, which is now a hub for testing new Stryker technology that includes sophisticated intelligence-gathering and communication systems. As the Stryker program has expanded, the number of active-duty soldiers assigned to Fort Lewis has grown from less than 22,000 before the war started to more than 27,000. By the end of this year, the population will climb to 30,000 active-duty soldiers as the third Stryker brigade expands to full strength. -- The civilian payroll also has swelled, partially because of the hiring of contractors to support the Stryker brigades. There have been more than 2,000 new hires, bringing the civilian work force to more than 10,700." -- Economically, Fort Lewis is coming to dominate Pierce County: "The current overall economic impact of Fort Lewis is estimated at about $2.05 billion annually, according to Joe Piek, an Army public-affairs officer. That's more than $250 million higher than the annual estimate of August 2005." -- Bernton identifies Col. Jon Lehr as "the commander of the 4th Brigade that is headed to Iraq next month." ...
FORT LEWIS TROOPS NOW FRONT AND CENTER
By Hal Bernton
March 19, 2007
FORT LEWIS, Pierce County -- When the war in Iraq began in 2003, soldiers on the biggest army post in the western United States remained largely on the sidelines.
As the fighting enters a fourth year, Fort Lewis troops are now in the thick of American efforts to improve security in an Iraq shattered by sectarian and insurgent violence.
More than 6,000 Fort Lewis-based soldiers are serving overseas, with the vast majority of them in Iraq. During the next three months, more than 4,900 additional troops will be headed to Iraq -- mostly members of a Stryker brigade -- as part of President Bush's troop buildup.
In Baghdad, Stryker brigade soldiers, who patrol in a new generation of eight-wheeled, high-tech vehicles, have fought in Sunni neighborhoods and patrolled the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. Last week, these troops launched a new offensive in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, where Sunni opposition forces have gathered.
"We want more of you. That's the message I got," said Col. Jon Lehr, who visited Iraq in January in advance of the April departure of the 4th (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Fort Lewis' high profile comes at a time of waning public support for U.S. involvement in the war as the new Democratic majority in Congress presses for a date to pull back troops.
Activists in January staged protests outside Fort Lewis to support 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, the first Army officer to face court-martial for refusing to fight in Iraq.
Earlier this month, hundreds of people joined in more than a week of protests that resulted in more than three dozen arrests at the Port of Tacoma, where Stryker vehicles were being shipped to the war zone.
"The war is illegal, and people are objecting to using the publicly owned facilities," said Mark Jensen, who helped organize the protests.
RAPID GROWTH AT FORT Fort Lewis has undergone dramatic growth since the beginning of the war, much of it spurred by the Army's more than $10 billion investment in forming the Stryker brigades.
The Strykers are the first new Army combat vehicle in more than 20 years and a cornerstone of efforts to create a more nimble fighting force. They serve as troop carriers but are designed to provide more firepower and protection than light-infantry units while being able to strike more rapidly than heavy-armored brigades.
Three of the seven brigades are based at Fort Lewis, which is now a hub for testing new Stryker technology that includes sophisticated intelligence-gathering and communication systems.
As the Stryker program has expanded, the number of active-duty soldiers assigned to Fort Lewis has grown from less than 22,000 before the war started to more than 27,000. By the end of this year, the population will climb to 30,000 active-duty soldiers as the third Stryker brigade expands to full strength.
The civilian payroll also has swelled, partially because of the hiring of contractors to support the Stryker brigades. There have been more than 2,000 new hires, bringing the civilian work force to more than 10,700.
The biggest building boom in at least 40 years has helped modernize the aging housing on the base. That effort was planned during the Clinton administration as Army officials realized that poor base housing was a major reason for people leaving the service. By the end of 2006, 486 new homes were built and more than 1,700 renovated.
Demand for post housing has increased as families with someone serving in Iraq looked to stay connected with other military families.
"It has become very important," said Kimberlee Schreiber, managing director of a military-private partnership that builds housing at Fort Lewis. "They want that emotional support."
The expansion of Fort Lewis has added to the already explosive growth in the surrounding areas of Pierce and Thurston counties. More than 70 percent of Fort Lewis' soldiers and their families live off the post.
The population of DuPont, just across the freeway from Fort Lewis, has more than doubled during the war years to 7,800.
DuPont has a new business district built largely since the war began, and its hotels and restaurants depend heavily on the military. At a typical lunchtime at Farrelli's, a popular pizza spot, some 80 percent of the business is military, according to Lizz Farrell, an owner.
The current overall economic impact of Fort Lewis is estimated at about $2.05 billion annually, according to Joe Piek, an Army public-affairs officer. That's more than $250 million higher than the annual estimate of August 2005.
FORGED BY WAR
For soldiers and their families, life at Fort Lewis is shaped by the war -- and long, anxious months of separation
A departure ceremony last week drew several thousand friends and families to watch the 4th Brigade gather on a parade field for a chaplain's invocation, display of the colors and speeches by commanders. That brigade was formed two years ago with a mix of veterans from other units that had served in Iraq and newer recruits, some of whom were still in high school when the war began.
Beverly Stinson, of Anchorage, left her commissary job at Alaska's Fort Richardson to help take care of Precious, her 7-year-old granddaughter, while her son-in-law serves in Iraq and her daughter serves at Fort Lewis.
"The war is on the forefront of all of our thoughts and all of our lives," Stinson said. "If we don't have relatives gone, we have friends gone. This is something on our minds every day."
When units finally fly home, there are balloon-filled reunions, banquets, and dances.
Memorial services also are part of the wartime rituals of Fort Lewis.
The war in Iraq has claimed 91 men and women from Fort Lewis. Each fallen soldier is remembered at a chapel service, where a rifle, helmet, and empty pair of boots is set up front. Amputees and severe burn victims often undergo months of surgery at specialized medical centers such as Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Other wounded soldiers have been treated at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis. Some of the heaviest losses were sustained by the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, that served in Iraq between September 2004 and fall 2005. That brigade suffered 45 deaths, and about 600 of its soldiers were wounded.
Cpl. Bobby Rosendahl, who now lives in Seattle, lost both of his legs below the knee in a bomb attack that threw him out of a Stryker vehicle in March 2005. He was evacuated to Walter Reed, where he underwent more than 35 operations.
"After I arrived at the hospital, it seemed like they [other members of the brigade] just poured in," Rosendahl recalls.
Lehr, the commander of the 4th Brigade that is headed to Iraq next month, is cautiously optimistic about the situation his brigade will face there. In recent weeks, there have been some encouraging signs from the war zone. So far, Sadr City patrols have not been drawing heavy fire as Shiite insurgents apparently chose not to challenge the U.S. presence.
But last week, Fort Lewis soldiers in Diyala province faced some of their fiercest combat yet. That fighting resulted in the death of Cpl. Brian L. Chevalier, 21, of Athens, Ga., of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
It is still unclear how the second Stryker brigade will be used upon its spring arrival. Some troops may act as a kind of rapid-strike force. Some may be asked to live in small garrison outposts and join in patrols with Iraqi forces, and some could be held in reserve.
Whatever they do, Lehr wants everyone on edge.
"Complacency will kill soldiers," Lehr said.