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Army’s first Stryker brigade heading to war without its namesake vehicles

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on Oct. 25, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
October 25, 2011 3:54 pm
Driving trainer Sgt. Justin Baker, left, talks with soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division during training with two variants of the MRAP vehicle, which they may be driving in their upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff photographer

The Army’s first Stryker brigade is about to become the first of its kind to go to war without the marquee infantry vehicle it helped develop a decade ago.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division is readying for a deployment to Afghanistan in December, and it’s leaving its fleet of roughly 300 eight-wheeled Strykers at its home station.

Instead, about 3,000 soldiers from the brigade will drive a mix of armored vehicles that are already in Afghanistan, such as the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) and its all-terrain variety, the M-ATV.

Lt. Col. Wayne Brewster, the brigade’s deputy commander, said his soldiers are prepared for the change.

“It’s a Stryker brigade, but the way we look at it is it’s an infantry brigade,” he said at a news briefing today. “The strength of the brigade is the soldier.”

His brigade has deployed to Iraq three times since 2003, each time using the Stryker. This is to be its first deployment to Afghanistan.

The 3rd Brigade’s first mission to Iraq, from November 2003 to November 2004, was credited with demonstrating the vehicle’s effectiveness in combat.

Back then, President Bush praised the Stryker units as “ghost riders” that hit their targets so quickly they surprised their enemies.

The Army has only enough Strykers in Afghanistan for about one brigade. They’re in use by the Alaska-based 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.

Meanwhile, the Army has thousands of MRAPs and M-ATVs, which were developed since 2007 to provide better protection against lethal improvised explosive devices.

Brewster said soldiers in the 3rd Brigade “do not feel rushed” for the mission. They prepared for their deployment in August at California’s National Training Center, where they used Strykers.

This fall, drivers throughout the brigade are getting a condensed course on how to drive MRAPs and M-ATVs. Few are available for training because they Defense Department has sent the majority of those vehicles directly to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stryker soldiers at an off-road exercise Monday said they preferred their brigade’s original vehicles, but they’re getting used to the ones that will be available to them in Afghanistan.

“I feel very confident that by the time we deploy, we’ll be up to snuff on all the vehicles,” said Pfc. Michael Mindt of the brigade’s 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.

Other soldiers said they’ll miss the firepower they can bring to bear with a Stryker. Those machines have four slats on their sides from which soldiers can shoot, as well as roof hatches.

The MRAPs and M-ATVs have one gun turret, and no side slats for other weapons.

“Everyone has the same complaint – the only person who gets to fire is the gunner,” said Sgt. Justin Baker, 28, the 5th Battalion’s master driver. Baker led Monday’s training session.

MRAPs and M-ATVs are designed with a V-shaped hull that deflects the impact of roadside bombs.

The original flat-bottomed Strykers do not offer the same level of protection. The Army has commissioned a  “double V hull” variety of Stryker vehicles, but only about 300 have been finished.

Brewster, the deputy commander, said the 3rd Brigade will deploy to southern Afghanistan and will work closely with Afghan security forces. He likened it to the training missions Lewis-McChord Stryker soldiers have carried out with Iraqi soldiers and police officers in recent years.

The brigade paid special attention to exercises focused on governance and building partnerships with local authorities when it prepared for its mission at the National Training Center two months ago.

“We’re very confident. We’ve done these sorts of missions before,” he said.

The brigade is heading to Afghanistan as the Defense Department scales down the number of American forces in the country. The 3rd Brigade is leaving its artillery battalion at home, and its 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment is expected to arrive in Afghanistan in January for a nine-month deployment instead of a yearlong mission.

The elements scheduled to deploy in December are the brigade headquarters; the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment; the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment; the 1st Battalion, 14th Cavalry Regiment and the 296th Brigade Support Battalion.

The 3rd Brigade likely will cover more ground with fewer soldiers than are in place today, but Brewster said it will draw on enhanced Afghan security forces. More than 305,000 Afghans are serving in the country’s security forces.

“We hope for a point where we’re no longer needed there because the nation can stand on its own,” he said.

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