TACOMA, Wash. – After a tough first couple of months, the commander of the latest Fort Lewis Stryker brigade to go to Iraq says his troops are making progress in three of the country’s most difficult provinces.
Soldiers from the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are working in Baghdad and in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces north of the capital.
“We are starting to get ahead of the enemy, we are starting to make headway,” Col. Jon Lehr, the brigade commander, said in a telephone interview. “We are making a difference.”
But already the brigade has paid a steep price, he said.
Fifteen of his soldiers have been killed since the unit arrived in Iraq in early May, and another 108 wounded. Of those, 72 were treated and returned to duty, while the other 26 were evacuated to stateside hospitals.
“I stress to all the families that I hope they can find comfort that their husband or son died heroes,” Lehr said. “They died defending the Iraqi people, they died defending and leading their fellow soldiers, and in the final analysis that makes them a hero in our book.”
The first month was the hardest, when the brigade lost nine soldiers. Five fell in June.
“I don’t think we’re different than any other unit that has come here recently,” Lehr said. “There’s a cycle. An organization comes in and the first two or three months they’re very vulnerable … It’s a tough environment, and it demands a very sophisticated approach.
“We’re starting to hit our stride now.”
One of Lehr’s battalion commanders had a similar take in an interview last week.
When the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment first got into its area of operations near Taji, (in Salahuddin) it faced numerous enemy fighters who’d built up defenses. Four soldiers were killed, three in roadside bombings.
But the battalion hasn’t lost a soldier since May 25 and its number of wounded has dropped dramatically since those early weeks, Lt. Col. William Prior said.
“We have grown tremendously in that time,” he said. “We know the terrain, the people and the enemy well and have taken all measures possible to limit casualties while still completing our mission.
“We took some hard losses initially and more may come, but the shoe is definitely on the other foot now,” Prior said. “This is a violent area and we face a tough, determined enemy. But we are tougher, more determined and just plain better and the enemy is paying the price.”
Both commanders said the brigade’s accelerated training schedule was not a factor in its early losses.
4th Brigade’s deployment was moved up a month as part of the Bush administration’s surge of U.S. forces into Iraq this spring. The Army canceled the brigade’s final training exercise at Fort Irwin, Calif., and instead sent hundreds of soldiers and contractors to Fort Lewis to conduct the exercise there.
“We were very well prepared, as well prepared as any unit can be,” Lehr said last week, reiterating what he told The News Tribune before the brigade left Fort Lewis. “You come over here and there’s a learning curve … The amount of work we did facing a very adaptive enemy in a complex environment, I still contend we were as well prepared as any unit could expect.”
“There are very few things that I would change about that train-up period,” the battalion commander said. “Of course, there is nothing that I would not do to bring back those that we have lost, but that is impossible.”
Prior’s is the only one of the 4th Brigade’s three Stryker infantry battalions still working under the brigade’s command. U.S. military commanders in Iraq have taken the other two and assigned them to other brigades in Baghdad.
Lehr, headquartered in Taji, still has his cavalry, artillery and support units.
After training together the past two years in preparation for the mission in Iraq, it’s a little hard for the brigade to have some of its combat power loaned out, Lehr acknowledged.
It’s a frustration shared by other commanders in Iraq – including his Fort Lewis counterpart, Col. Steve Townsend, who leads the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Parts of 3rd Brigade have likewise been peeled off to other units for nearly all its 13 months in Iraq.
“Of course every commander wants to have all his organizations under his command. But I understand that there’s a bigger fight here,” Lehr said. “One thing we get trained on and learn over the years, is we have to support the main effort, and the main effort is elsewhere.
“I’m sure there’ll be a time when all the forces will be aligned under our original headquarters.”
For now, 4th Brigade units in the Tigris River Valley are conducting security operations and some other “non-lethal” missions in the towns and cities of Kahn Bani Said, Husseiniya and Rashidiyah.
They’re training Iraqi security forces and in some cases hiring local residents for improvement projects – clearing streets of garbage, renovating schools and other buildings.
“There is plenty of work to get done, an inordinate amount to get done,” Lehr said. Over time, more of the brigade’s work may shift into these kinds of projects.
“But first things first,” the commander said. “And security comes first.”