NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America’s troops where they live. We’re calling the project “Back at Base.” This is the second of four reports this week about the National Guard.
Inside the hangar at Washington state’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the Army National Guard mechanics are busy maintaining a neat line of Blackhawks.
Some of these helicopters have flown in every war since Vietnam and they have the bullet holes to prove it.
“So we get hand-me-downs,” says Col. David Caporicci, the deputy commander of the 66th Theater Aviation Command. “So, like I’m the middle child. So my bigger brother, the Army, gets brand new stuff and when he gets new stuff I get his old stuff. Unfortunately you know the knees are worn out in the pants and the socks got holes in them and that’s what I get!”
It’s a mostly friendly family rivalry here in Washington state.
But as Congress cuts $500 billion out of the Defense Department budget, the active Army and the National Guard are competing for the same dollars.
At JBLM, which is 40 miles south of Seattle, the fight is over equipment: Not just old helicopters but also whether the Guard gets some of the active Army’s best armored vehicles known as Strykers.
“We’re saying, ‘Hey, put us in.’ You know we’ve been a heavy brigade combat team for years,” says Major Gen. Bret Daugherty, who leads the Washington National Guard. “There’s 600 unused vehicles parked at JBLM right now there’s absolutely no reason we couldn’t convert to Strykers and save the Army money in that process.”
Daugherty is part of a three-state effort to let the Guard swap old Bradley fighting vehicles for the more modern Strykers.
He says the Guard needs the Strykers because its troops are called on for so many missions. For example, they’ve deployed to Iraq, and they also help the state. Right now the Guard is training in preparation of any major earthquakes in the region.
“When that earthquake strikes us and all the bridges come down, tanks and Bradleys are not going to be able to help the citizens of Washington, whereas wheeled Stryker vehicles with their state of the art electronics and digital communications suite will,” says Daugherty.
But the active Army says it needs those Strykers to do their job, too.
“It’s a zero-sum game,” says Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, the commander of all active Army forces at JBLM. “I think it’s an Army decision. I think the Guard brings it up and I think the Army will decide if they want to convert that brigade to a Stryker brigade.”
Lazna says he can’t spare people or equipment. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon shifted its focus to the Pacific — everything from humanitarian missions to deterring China — and Lanza’s command is central to that plan.
“If you have a strategy that’s not resourced, one of two things has to happen. Either you change the strategy or you provide the additional resources to accomplish the strategy you’ve been given,” he says.
Lanza is fighting to keep not just the Strykers, but to avoid cuts across his force. If the active Army is cut, the base could lose 11,000 soldiers and civilians.
The National Guard could lose 35,000 citizen soldiers nationally and 1,000 from Washington state.
One of them will probably be Caporicci — who works at that aircraft hangar.
The Army has already targeted his aviation command for deactivation. The helicopters are staying, it’s just the officers who won’t.
“It means I’ll have to go find a real job … It’s not anything anybody can … well you know, nobody likes to be laid off,” he says.
Daugherty has some ideas about how to save Caporicci’s job, but he’s not sure Army leaders are listening.
“We went through a pretty extensive staffing process and identified units that we thought made the most sense to give back. But the active army said thanks for your input we’ll get back to you,” Daugherty says.
And that’s frustrating because cutting the Aviation command won’t even save the Army much money. But losing it would cost the Guard Caporicci’s 28 years of experience and the relationships he’s built with the state.