The Army's latest Stryker brigade checked off the last big item on its to-do list Monday as a few thousand family and friends gathered at Fort Lewis to wish soldiers well before their scheduled year in Iraq.|
Now, for the 4,000 or so soldiers of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, it's mostly a matter of waiting a few weeks for flights to the Middle East.
The brigade is only two years old, having been created at Fort Lewis, but some of its subordinate battalions trace their lineage back to the Civil War, the Fort Lewis commanding general, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, reminded the troops at the deployment ceremony.
"Now it's your turn to write history," Dubik said under blustery but blue skies. "We know you will write well."
The brigade is leaving a month ahead of schedule to be part of the "surge" of U.S. forces ordered by President Bush. To make up the time, the Army canceled a desert training in Southern California and instead flew hundreds of trainers, coaches and role players up from Louisiana.
The brigade also leaves at a time when the U.S. politics of the war in Iraq have never been so uncertain.
The departure of the brigade's equipment from the Port of Tacoma drew protesters all the past week. Meantime, Democrats in Congress are calling for a date-certain phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Speakers Monday made no reference to any of that. Dubik thanked local communities "for your continued support for our soldiers and their families, soldiers who serve us all."
The deployment also comes at a time when there are signs, however modest, of positive changes in Iraq.
"I think things are settling down now. I don't really understand the dynamic of why they are," said Col. Jon Lehr, the 4th Brigade commander. But he said he was wary of making too much of that; he doesn't want his troops to let their guard down.
"That complacency will kill soldiers," he said.
Families said they were focusing on the things close to home.
"I feel that he is highly trained and knows exactly what to do when he gets there," said Sheri Mycue, whose husband, Lt. Col. Alfred Mycue, commands one of the brigade's three infantry battalions.
Krista Markham is getting ready for a second year apart from her husband, Maj. Keith Markham, the executive officer with one of the battalions. He went to Iraq in 2003-04 with the first Stryker brigade.
The Markhams have had two more children since then, and Krista Markham said it's taking care of her three daughters and son ages 7 years to 6 months that will keep her busy when Keith is away.
"I don't have any anxiety. I'm going to miss him, but I know what my job is. My job is to support him, keep things back home stable, keep the kids happy."
And she said she can't resent the fact her husband "can't wait" for the deployment to start.
"He's prepared for this for two years," she said. "I can see it on his face every day."
Lehr said he's still not certain of his brigade's mission once it reaches Iraq.
Flights will begin to leave in early April, and 4th Brigade will train in Kuwait for a couple of weeks before it heads north.
The brigade might be directed to "own" a geographic area, or it may be a strike force, or it may be a reserve to go wherever the commanders need it or all of the above, he said.
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