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Army secretary visits Lewis-McChord amid deployments to US-Mexico border

Secretary of the Army Mark Esper visits 2-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team at the urban assault training site on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., on Nov. 1, 2018.

ERICA B. EARL/U.S. ARMY

By HAL BERNTON | The Seattle Times | Published: November 3, 2018

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD (Tribune News Service) — In a visit to this Western Washington military base, Army Secretary Mark Esper spoke of replacing aging tanks with a new generation of vehicles, figuring out a more flexible personnel system to help recruit tech talent to fight cyberwars, and extending basic training to produce more combat-ready soldiers for foreign deployments.

But the focus this week has been on a different kind of Army mission as thousands of soldiers – including eight from JBLM – head to U.S. soil to prepare for what President Donald Trump has called an "invasion" by a northbound caravan of Central American migrants.

Trump has announced that up to 15,000 Army and other troops could be stationed on the border.

In a meeting Thursday with reporters, Esper stressed that Army soldiers deployed to "Operation Faithful Patriot" will be in a support role. "The mission is to provide the forces needed to assist Customs and Border Protection ... That's logistics support, air support to move folks around, things like that. And so I'm confident our soldiers can fulfill that."

The eight JBLM soldiers are part of a public affairs unit. They left this week for Arizona and Texas, and will produce videos, photos and written releases about Army units that will be involved in tasks such as stringing up concertina wire along the border, aerial surveillance, medical assistance and air and ground transportation. No other JBLM troops are being deployed, so far.

U.S. troops, under a federal law known the Posse Comitatus Act, are generally not supposed to be involved in front-line law enforcement inside the United States. And the deployment is getting pushback from the president's critics in Congress.

Trump, in Thursday remarks, explained his view of the mission, and how troops should react to trouble. "They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back," Trump said, "I told them, consider it a rifle."

Washington U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat who is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was reprehensible for the president "to threaten violence against a group of individuals, including children and women, who are coming to our country seeking asylum." He joined 104 other House Democrats in sending a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis that asked for more information about the rules of engagement.

The era of large-scale combat deployments out of JBLM, which played a major role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is over. Soldiers continue to head overseas for training exercises, and a JBLM-based surgical team is now serving in Afghanistan, according to Lt. Col. Scot Keith, I Corps deputy public affairs director.

Esper, a former Raytheon Company vice president, spent Thursday at JBLM in briefings, attending a town hall that drew hundreds of Army soldiers, and also observing troops training on eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles.

Esper said Thursday that "for the foreseeable future" he sees the Strykers as having a critical role in Army combat units.

Esper is leading the Army at a time when training is changing. At the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the focus shifted heavily to combating insurgencies. There is now a new focus in preparing soldiers to fight high-intensity conflicts, such as the armed forces they would face from China or Russia. But soldiers will continue to get training in unconventional warfare.

"We can't lose these hard-won competencies," Esper said.

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