Front-line combat is still a reality for a battalion of elite JBLM troops, who paused on Friday’s 9/11 anniversary to honor soldiers for heroism under fire.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD —
Some 800 of the Army’s elite Rangers serve here in Western Washington, the youngest of whom had yet to enter first grade when the events of 9/11 set the stage for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.
Even after the U.S. declared a formal end to combat operations in Afghanistan last December, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment continue to deploy to the front lines of an ongoing conflict that now rarely makes headlines.
The Rangers’ latest deployment — the unit’s 19th since 9/11 — occurred from January to May of this year. During that time, battalion soldiers spread out across Afghanistan and were involved in more than 200 combat operations as they pursued what Lt. Col. Jay Bartholomees called “high value targets.”
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“We have remained in contact with the enemy in either Iraq and/or Afghanistan since 2001,” Bartholomees, the battalion’s commander, said Friday. “That is the significance of this day 14 years ago. “It was the day that sent us to war.”
Sixteen in the battalion have died since 9/11.
Leaders chose this week’s anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hold an awards ceremony, honoring 14 Rangers with the Bronze Star for service in Afghanistan this year and another 46 with the Joint Service Commendation Medal.
Also during the ceremony, the Rangers’ Alpha Company received the Valorous Unit Award for acts of heroism at a level that would earn an individual the Silver Star. The actions unfolded as Rangers went behind enemy lines for days of intense combat in November 2010 in an operation known as “Bulldog Bite” in Kunar province.
A second Valorous Unit Award went to the entire battalion Friday for combat operations in August-December 2011 in support of a surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan.
“This is our opportunity to recognize excellence, to recognize valor, to recognize selfless service,” Bartholomees told the soldiers, who stood in formation on the sunny, blue-sky day behind a memorial to fallen Rangers.
The 2nd Battalion deployments — unlike larger movements by Stryker brigades and other units — are not publicly announced. At Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) the battalion occupies what amounts to a base within a base, a walled-off compound fringed by barbed wire and restricted-area signs. The compound includes barracks, a dining hall, gymnasium and operations center.
The Ranger Creed, carved on stone slabs outside the operations center and recited in unison at the end of the awards ceremony, includes the declaration, “Surrender is not a Ranger word.”
Rangers at JBLM and those based elsewhere have played an important role in combat operations during the 9/11 era. Rangers were among the first U.S. forces in Afghanistan in October 2001 and also among the first to enter Iraq as that war began with the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The more recent Ranger deployments from JBLM to Afghanistan have involved smaller units rather than the entire battalion, as was typical through much of the post-9/11 era.
These Rangers, once they arrive in Afghanistan, are in the thick of the war even as the broader U.S. military operations there have transitioned to a support role.
More deployments are expected in the years ahead as the Afghan army continues to face a tough fight, and sustain heavy losses, against the Taliban and other insurgent groups that now include fighters from the so-called Islamic State group.
On hand for Friday’s ceremony was retired Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism in May 2008 as his unit came under fire. Bleeding badly, he picked up a live grenade and hurled it back in an action that protected fellow soldiers even as he lost his right hand.
Petry, who served nearly 15 years with the 2nd Battalion, recalled how during his initial deployment in Afghanistan in the first year of the war, he helped to break ground for some of the bases that still exist today.
Petry said he recently had a chance to return to Afghanistan, where he met briefly with the president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, and was encouraged by some of the changes he found.
But Petry says that early on, he didn’t expect the war would last so long.
“I still think it will carry on to the future — for a little while,” Petry said. “They’re starting to stand on their own two feet. I would like to see us brace them a little bit longer on their walk.”