WASHINGTON — The Anchorage-based 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, known as the "4-25," has officially evaded shrinking its force size, as planned under the Obama administration, the Army announced Friday.
In July 2015, the Army announced that more than 2,600 soldiers housed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) were among 40,000 slated for elimination across the country, part of a long-term effort to shave 120,000 troops off of the Army's overall force numbers.
But after demonstrations, a series of visits from top-ranking generals and dogged pressure from Alaska's congressional delegation, particularly Sen. Dan Sullivan, the cuts never came to be. The soldiers at JBER were the only ones, nationwide, to escape the fate they once feared. The cuts were first postponed, then delayed indefinitely and now are officially off the table, the Army announced. Instead, 1,500 soldiers from the 4-25 will deploy to Afghanistan later this year.
All three members of the Alaska delegation played some part in the effort to convince the Army that the 4-25 was too important to let go. But Sullivan is one of a small number of active-duty military members in Congress (Marine Reserves) and a member of the Armed Services Committee, where he mentioned the 4-25 at just about every hearing for the last two years.
By Friday, Sullivan said many of his Senate colleagues knew more about the 4-25 than most people living in Alaska. He said he was getting high-fives from Armed Services Committee members in the hallways.
"If you look at the 40,000 troops the Army cut when they made these announcements about two years ago — every one of those soldiers, with the exception of ours, are now gone. Every one of them," Sullivan said.
"I've been working tirelessly along with Sen. Sullivan and Congressman Young to reverse the proposed downsize of the 4-25 since it was first announced in 2014," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Friday. "As a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I will work to ensure the 4-25 is adequately funded."
The Army said Friday that the final decision to retain the 4-25 after deployment to Afghanistan "is dependent on receiving an appropriation from Congress commensurate with the increased end strength outlined in the (National Defense Authorization Act)."
Back in Anchorage, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz had formed a group to review the economic prospects for the city if the troops were cut at JBER. They found the potential for "significant impacts to the small businesses and general economy of North Anchorage and Chugiak/Eagle River," he said Friday.
"It is great news that our friends and neighbors in the 4-25 are here to stay," he said, touting their contributions to the city.
Sullivan heard about the Army's decision early, during a chance encounter with Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff for the Army, at a White House event for Wounded Warriors on Thursday.
"I found out then," Sullivan said Friday. "You know, we were hearing rumors but I hadn't heard officially, and he gave me the word — not only the word about them staying indefinitely, the full brigade combat team, but also about their upcoming deployment."
During Sullivan's two-year fight to keep the 4-25, he stuck to a few key arguments as to why the Army needed to rethink its efforts.
First, he reasoned that their training was unusual and valuable, dealing with mountainous regions and very cold weather, and there aren't many units that are equipped to handle those conditions.
Second, he focused on Alaska's proximity to the Asia-Pacific region (think North Korea), and to America's Arctic.
"As the Russians were building up four new brigade combat teams in the Arctic, and a new Arctic military command, we're going to get rid of our only brigade combat team based in the Arctic? I think that would have been a really bad signal to send to Vladimir Putin and the Russian military," Sullivan said.
Gov. Bill Walker said he thought the decision to keep the soldiers at JBER is a "powerful recognition" of Alaska's "unique and strategic geopolitical location."
"Not only are they the only airborne brigade in the Pacific and the only Arctic-capable airborne brigade in the U.S. Army, they are one of the finest light infantry units in the entire military," Rep. Don Young said Friday.
And third, Sullivan set out to undo a part of the Army's review that he felt was faulty: The facilities in Alaska were rated low for training.
On Friday, Maj. Gen. Bryan Owens, the commanding general of U.S. Army Alaska, touted the brigade's rigorous training "in a wide range of climates and environments."
Along the path between the announcement that the JBER troops were on the chopping block and Friday's reversal, there were a series of meetings and events that led to Army officials' about-face.
Sullivan got the ball rolling in Washington, D.C., when he put a hold on the nominations of several incoming military leaders who were going through the Senate confirmation process. The "commitment I got from them was to put a hold on the decision," and an agreement that they would come up to Alaska and see the troops for themselves, Sullivan said.
Sullivan and Murkowski also inserted language into a Defense authorization bill that encouraged a formal review of the nation's Arctic needs.
The senator pointed to demonstration exercises at Fort Polk in a Joint Readiness Training Center exercise in February 2016, a live-fire training scenario where troops demonstrate their work in combat-like conditions.
"Ever watch 1,000 members of an airborne combat team drop out of the sky? It's impressive," Sullivan said. He attended, as did Gen. Milley.
And Sullivan touted the support of the local community, which he said even impressed one of the many military officers who visited Alaska to review the troops.