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Joint Base Lewis-McChord Marks 100 Years

John Simpson
Two soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord talk with a young Iraqi girl

Joint Base Lewis-McChord is marking 100 years of exerting its influence both locally and globally.

Camp Lewis opened in 1917 just south of Tacoma. It was initially a training ground for soldiers headed into World War I.

Over the next century, it grew into a sprawling Army and Air Force base where some 60,000 people work, making it the second biggest employer in Washington State.

John Simpson has watched some of that unfold. He teaches history at Pierce College, near the base. But he’s also a photojournalist for The Ranger newspaper who has stood alongside the base’s soldiers as they fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

KNKX reporter Will James spoke to Simpson about how Joint Base Lewis-McChord has shaped both its local community and events around the world. Simpson also draws on his experience as a member of the Lakewood City Council and a retired Air Force major. 

Listen to that interview and read some of the highlights below:

On how Joint Base Lewis-McChord has shaped the City of Lakewood:

"Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the largest employer in Pierce County. It is a tremendous asset, economically, socially. A lot of individuals who retire from Joint Base Lewis-McChord elect to stay in this area... The city manager is a veteran. There are four members of the City Council who are military-connected."

On where the base falls in the hierarchy of military installations: 

"It is the largest power-projection platform on the West Coast of the United States... If the United States needed to conduct operations in the world, we are one of, I believe, 16 or 17 platforms, points, from which that power can be projected to protect and defend the United States." 

On how Joint Base Lewis-McChord has kept its historic character: 

"All of the buildings that you see around Watkins Field are from the '30s. Many of the buildings you see at McChord Field, like the castle, those go back to the '30s. I mean, it's kept that architectural character... I can't prove this, it's not something that is necessarily empirical, but I think that architectural character has something to do with the character of the people who work there." 

On traveling with soldiers from the base to Iraq and Afghanistan:

Credit Courtesy of John Simpson
Photojournalist John Simpson seated next to a detainee

"I ran into guys that had been students in my class... It was as much a surprise [for] them to see me as it was for me to see them. One of the things I'll never forget is back in 2005 in Mosul... we were caught in a pretty good-sized ambush. One of the guys standing next to me was my former student." 

Simpson's work as a photojournalist also put him face-to-face with the sacrifices soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord have made in recent wars. 

In this interview clip, he describes a scene he watched unfold in an operating room Afghanistan's Kandahar Province:

Photojournalist John Simpson describes a scene he witnessed in an operating room in Afghanistan

Credit John Simpson
Troops detain suspected Taliban members

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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