LACEY, Wash. -- As troops return from overseas, the focus of Joint Base Lewis-McCord is shifting to the Pacific Rim while adjusting for potential cuts to the nation’s defense budget.
Lt. Gen. Robert Brown, commanding general of I Corps at Lewis-McChord, spoke Wednesday afternoon about the shift, as well as other base issues, to members of the Thurston County Chamber during a monthly forum at Saint Martin’s University.
Brown took over command this summer after a six-year gap from his first time at Lewis-McChord when he led a Stryker brigade.
“I feel very fortunate to be back,” Brown said to the crowd during the luncheon. “I never said in a million years I’d be general. … I was going to the University of Michigan on a basketball scholarship.”
Those plans changed once he was approached by a basketball coach at West Point, shifting his goals to military service.
Brown spent nearly an hour talking about a variety of topics, including Lewis-McChord’s involvement in the past 11 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the push for involving soldiers in local communities.
All of the base’s brigades are scheduled to return home by the summer of 2013, turning attention to the Pacific.
Soldiers will be sent to various countries to complete training exercises ranging anywhere from a few weeks to a month.
A presentation showed maps of the Pacific Rim, highlighting the world’s three largest economies: Japan, China and the United States, as well as the four most-populated countries: Indonesia, India, China and the United States.
“This is an area that is growing and expanding,” Brown said. “We need to look at making sure it remains peaceful and prosperous and we are a part of it.”
Most future operations would likely be humanitarian, Brown said, because of the increased chance of tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons for those areas along the Ring of Fire.
Soldiers from the base have already worked with soldiers in the Philippines and Thailand for six exercises last year, Brown said.
Some in attendance at Wednesday’s luncheon asked Brown if businesses should expect soldiers from the Pacific Rim nations to come to the area.
Brown said some Japanese soldiers will be coming to Washington state in the fall, but most of their training will be done in Yakima.
“When we do exercises in Japan, they invite our soldiers out into their homes in the community, have special festivals and show them the culture,” Brown said. “Certainly we can invite them out to restaurants and have events, and maybe even go as far as sponsorship.”
Soldiers coming home
Soldiers in transition are benefitting from lessons learned in past conflicts, Brown said.
“Every time a Vietnam vet comes up and thanks me and my soldiers, they feel humbled, and it bothers you because they did not get great treatment or great respect,” Brown said. “We ignored a lot of their problems, and we have learned from the mistakes.”
Brown spoke of the numerous programs available to home-bound soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Changes at base
Brown said the base has doubled in size since he first came in 2005, and now has 46,000 military personnel, 60,000 civilians and 12,000 civilian employees.
That number is likely to decrease, depending on potential cuts to defense funding.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but there is a chance we could get smaller,” Brown said. “Coming out of two wars, of course you have to cut, but where is that line where there is too much that you don’t remain effective?”
A handful of those in the audience asked about transportation issues along Interstate 5 near Lewis-McChord.
Brown said the base has opened three gates giving alternative routes for exiting soldiers, helping to avoid adding to interstate traffic.
“We have contributed to that in the growth, but there are a lot of other factors,” Brown said of I-5 congestion. “The whole community has grown, the whole area has grown.”
Brown said the base wants to become more involved in the surrounding community through volunteer work.
“The young soldiers in particular – this means the world to them,” he said. “Just any simple thing.”
Volunteer opportunities could include 5K-runs, cancer walks or other charity events.
“We don’t want them to stay locked on the base,” Brown said. “We want to get out in the community.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services