Col. Barry Huggins, left, returned from a nine-month deployment leading Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Photo by Lt. Rose Neats.
The homecomings from an intense year in Afghanistan are almost compete at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which this week brought back the command group for its 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Its return is notable in part because of the brigade went about its business for the past nine months at war while rarely making news. It also earned some high praise from one of the war’s top generals as it left Afghanistan earlier this month.
2nd Brigade “soldiers mark this deployment by accomplishing some of the most complex and difficult tasks assigned to anywhere in RC-South,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan. “Lancers brought Afghan National Security Forces into the lead this past summer, mentoring and developing all the pillars of the Afghan National Security Forces.”
The 2nd Brigade – known as the Lancers – is composed of the units that used to be called the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The 5th Brigade was the first Stryker brigade to fight in Afghanistan, and its 2009-10 deployment was among the most significant of the war.
The 5th brigade patrolled dangerous, rural districts surrounding Kandahar City that had been neglected for several years. It lost 37 soldiers, several of whom died in devastating attacks that killed multiple troops inside Stryker vehicles.
It came home with a mixed legacy. One of its battalions earned a presidential commendation for its fighting alongside Marine units in Helmand province. The brigade motto “search and destroy” seemed appropriate for soldiers who were clearing threatening Taliban controlled territory.
But its commander, Col. Harry Tunnell, clashed with his NATO leaders over strategy. Some of his troops complained that the Stryker was not suited for Afghanistan, and one of its units suffered more casualties than any other Army unit of its size in that war.
Later, an Army investigation from a one star general criticized Tunnell’s leadership even as it stressed his aggressive style was not connected to the so-called “kill team” homicides. It found he was out of step with his commanders, and he did not pay enough attention to standards at the lowest levels of his brigade.
(Tunnell has many supporters across the Army who maintain that his command style was the right approach for the war at that time. They say he could have carried out the same tactics if he’d only changed his language to reflect the counterinsurgency themes his commanders wanted.)
The 2nd Brigade’s deployment unfolded on the same terrain, but it featured none of the controversies that dogged its predecessors.
About a fifth of the soldiers who went to war with Col. Barry Huggins’ 2nd Brigade also served with Tunnell under the flag of the 5th Brigade. They benefited from a redesigned Stryker that made the infantry vehicle safer against the enemy’s buried bombs.
The 2nd Brigade suffered eight fatal casualties and several other serious injuries on this tour. It seemed to only make the news when a Stars and Stripes reporter accompanied one of its units on a successful mission the Afghan army wanted to undertake to reclaim sacred ground.
The 2nd Brigade does not like it when reporters mention that its units used to carry the 5th Brigade’s flag. It insists the 2nd Brigade is not the 5th Brigade, and I can’t count the number of notes I’ve received from soldiers stressing this point.
But the 2nd Brigade went to war last year with plenty of comparisons connecting it to the 5th Brigade. For instance, Col. Huggins last year had to answer for the 5th Brigade even as he sought to turn the media’s attention to the soldiers he had spent more than two years training.
“This is a force and these are soldiers you can have a great deal of confidence in,” Huggins said at his February 2012 press conference as the brigade left for Afghanistan.
The 5th Brigade went to war at a different time with different tools, so it’s impossible to hang the differences in the two tours on Tunnell.
One officer who served under both commanders said the brigade had a different culture this time. He attributed some of the different results to the 2nd Brigade holding up Army standards “all the way down the line.”