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62nd Medical Brigade deployment cut short as Afghan war winds down

Midway through her deployment to Afghanistan last year, Col. Theresa Schneider got some good news: The Army wanted her and about 60 other soldiers from her Joint Base Lewis-McChord medical headquarters to return home in time for Christmas.

But there was a catch. Schneider had to close out her command managing the war’s two primary combat hospitals at a much faster pace than she planned. She’d thought she had until March.

“You had six months to do what you thought you had nine months to do,” said Schneider, who leads Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Medical Brigade.

The quickening pace of her work was a sign of the U.S. military’s drawdown from the war. About 34,000 U.S. troops are in the country today, down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011.

The Obama administration’s goal is to reduce that number even more by the end of 2014. To get there, the military has been cutting short deployments as it determines units are no longer needed.

In 2012, most Lewis-McChord soldiers served nine-month or one-year tours in Afghanistan. Last year, many came home in less than seven months, including more than 3,000 soldiers in the base’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Casualties have declined, too, as Western forces have shifted more of the fighting to Afghan control. Last year, 127 American military service members died in Afghanistan, down from 399 in 2010, according to icasualties.org.

With fewer Western troops in harm’s way, it was time to get moving to scale down the war’s medical support infrastructure, including the command Schneider and her team moved into last June.

The military created that headquarters four years ago as President Barack Obama stepped up the number of troops in Afghanistan. It was charged with overseeing the hospitals at Bagram Air Field and Kandahar Field, as well as supporting European-led facilities and making sure field medics around the country had supplies they needed.

During Schneider’s recent six-month tour, more than 35,000 patients moved through the facilities her team managed.

She particularly enjoyed seeing medics from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines work together at jointly managed hospitals. They also worked with medics from Egypt, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.

“You had the international flavor, you had the joint (service) flavor, and you’re all here for the same mission: trying to save lives,” said Schneider, whose last overseas assignment before this one was as a surgeon for Multinational Forces-Iraq.

The Lewis-McChord medical headquarters also closed out contracts and sent home unneeded equipment while trying to figure out what NATO medical facilities might want over the next year.

Schneider and her team from Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Medical Brigade were not replaced when they came home in December. The combat hospitals are back to a supply system similar to the one in place before the surge of troops into Afghanistan.

Now the headquarters is back to managing a mix of combat support hospitals, surgeons, nurses, dentists and veterinarians from the base south of Tacoma.

“We had a great mission. We were able to get home to spend the holidays with our families, and we all came home safely,” Schneider said. “You can’t complain about that.”

adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com

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