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Update: The lockdown has been lifted and the Army is seeking tips from the public. More info after the jump.

Soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord

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Ex-Soldiers Say Lockdown at Lewis-McChord Reflects Larger Problems at Base (UPDATE: Lockdown Lifted)

Thermal Scope 150x120.jpg
Update: The lockdown has been lifted and the Army is seeking tips from the public. More info after the jump.

Soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord are still on lockdown today because a cache of expensive military optics equipment went missing over the holidays, and two army vets, including one from the outfit affected, say that tensions between the troops and their commanding officers have "reached a breaking point."

UPDATE

At precisely 5:45 p.m. Tuesday night, Army criminal investigators announced that the lockdown in effect for the Fort Lewis soldiers suspected of making off with several hundred-thousand dollars worth of optics gear has been lifted.

In an "unclassified message" (aka plainly worded press release), the Army said that the soldiers are allowed to return to their off base homes and families. The lockdown is described as the "professional response the American taxpayer expects," and "an integral part of the investigation."

But as important as it may have been, it seems none of the soldiers in the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division opted to confess. The Army is still dangling a $10,000 reward and soliciting tips from the public.

Here's the full text of the announcement:

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED

Caveats: NONE

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD

News Release #005-12

January 10, 2012

The Army's public affairs division

4th Stryker Brigade Soldiers' restriction lifted

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - Approximately 100 soldiers from one company within the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division have been released from restriction and allowed to return to their current residences as of 5:45 p.m.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) continues investigating the theft of the weapon accessories, which include weapon sights, night vision devices, optics, etc., totaling more than $600,000. CID has also offered a $10,000 reward for further information regarding the case. Persons with information regarding to and leading to the retrieval of the missing items can contact CID at 253-967-3151 or contact the Military Police at 253-967-7112.

"The Army takes property accountability very seriously," Col. Michael Getchell, Commander of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, said. "These restrictions have been an integral part of the investigation, and it is the professional response the American taxpayer expects when over $600,000 worth of Army equipment is suspected to be stolen."

Original Post

As reported yesterday on Daily Weekly, the Army first noticed the missing equipment last Wednesday during a routine inventory. More than 130 items are presumed stolen, including night vision goggles and scopes, thermal imaging devices, laser sights, and "telescope machine gun optics." The haul is reportedly valued at more than $600,000, and the Army is offering a $10,000 reward "for information leading to the apprehension and conviction" of the people responsible.

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Image courtesy of Kevin Baker
The missing equipment includes a thermal scopes that can be mounted on assault rifles to give shooters "the ability to see heat signatures in the middle of the night," former soldier Kevin Baker says.

The Army seems to have narrowed down the list of possible suspects to about 100 or so members of 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment's Charlie Company. They have not been allowed to leave their barracks or the dining hall without an escort, and their cell phones and other electronic devices were confiscated, preventing them from communicating with their families. They have also been denied access to ACAP, the Army Career and Alumni Program, a series of workshops that prepare soldiers for the transition from military to civilian life.

The organization March Forward! published a statement purportedly penned by members of 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment (the 4/9, for short), stating that unit is "being subjected to abusive treatment by its chain of command," and claiming that the lockdown is "the result of negligence of their officers and senior NCOs, who failed to maintain positive control over their sensitive items."

March Forward!, an activist group comprised of former armed forces members, is also hosting an online petition that calls for an immediate end to the lockdown. The group's founder, ex-Army corporal and Iraq War vet Michael Prysner, says that signatures for the petition are "pouring in," partly because the lockdown is "the kind of experience that resonates with everyone in the military."

"It's the same old story," Prysner says. "The officers act incompetently and it affects the lives of lower enlisted soldiers, who are treated like they don't matter at all. It's the experience of people from the time they enter military to time they get out, and are denied services they need as veteran."

Particularly galling to Prysner is the fact that the 4/9 soldiers are not being allowed to participate in ACAP, which offers job training and mental health counseling for servicemen on the verge of leaving the military.

"You can't really overstate the importance of it," Prysner says, citing elevated levels of unemployment, foreclosure, and homelessness among veterans. "Denying soldiers that is saying they mean nothing. It's the command saying that, for all they care, those soldiers could go sleep on the street and eat out of the Dumpster."

The Joint Base Lewis-McChord public affairs office did not return a message seeking comment on the petition and statement published by March Forward!. The Tacoma News Tribune quoted an Army spokesperson as saying that some restrictions have been lifted, and that the base's Criminal Investigative Dvision is planning a town hall on the lockdown for soldiers and the families this Saturday.

Kevin Baker, a former member of 4th Brigade, says the unit was embroiled in controversy in March of 2010 when soldier Derrick Kirkland committed suicide. Baker alleges that Kirkland's death was preventable (the 23-year-old was deemed a "low-moderate risk" after attempting suicide three times before he finally hanged himself) and that the lingering resentment can be seen in the 4/9's response to the lockdown. The men "have reached breaking point, where they can acknowledge that this chain of command doesn't care about them," Baker says.

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