FORT LEWIS, Wash. - Civic and business leaders from the City of Lakewood got first-time, firsthand looks at Fort Lewis Soldiers and their equipment last week.

Colonel John Norris welcomed a 22-person delegation, led by Mayor Douglas Richardson, of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division's Community Connections city to his headquarters to kick off a special military orientation. Most said they had never worn flak vests or ridden in Stryker vehicles.

"This is your time," Norris, the brigade commander, told them at the outset of the April 28 program. "This is your chance to be with Stryker brigade Soldiers. This is one small portion of a representative force of the entire Fort Lewis."

"It's pretty cool," Ernie Schilter, Tacoma Nissan Suburu general sales manager, said of the Raider Brigade's outreach to the community. "I'm excited to see the Stryker vehicle."

Schilter said though it was his first time wearing military safety equipment and first real contact with Soldiers in their environment, he thoroughly enjoyed the day.

"One of our employees' wife was deployed last summer," Schilter said. "She was with the MPs. We hosted a big barbecue for the family. That was my first experience with the military."

Norris briefed the Lakewood leaders on the history of his Stryker organization, from its stand-up as 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La., to its reflagging at Fort Lewis and its deployment in support of the surge operations of 2007. The brigade arrived to join the fighting in some of the hottest areas of Iraq, he said, including Baqubah. Their arrival and part in immediate combat operations were key factors in the success of the surge that helped turn coalition fortunes in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"(Success) wasn't without a price," Norris said. "You can look at our memorial wall behind you to see the Soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Later on in July we'll dedicate the memorial on this post and you all are invited to that, as well."

Norris, who commanded a Stryker battalion under the 172nd Infantry brigade in Iraq, gave the visitors an experience-based testimonial of the superiority of Stryker vehicles and the effectiveness of the Soldiers they carry into battle.

"There is not one place a Stryker brigade Soldier would not go," Norris said. "When there is gunfire, when there are explosions and sounds of fighting, that's where you'll find Strykers - in the thick of it."

A bus transported the Lakewood delegation to Range 87, where they talked to Soldiers, saw equipment demonstrations, took their first rides on Stryker vehicles and watched 4th Bde., 2nd Inf. Div. Soldiers fire and maneuver against an objective.

The brigade's organic field artillery unit, 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery Regiment, fired its newest guns, the M-777 155 mm howitzers, after the delegation learned about their mobility and agility on the battlefield.

"It is important that we as citizens understand what it is we are paying for," said Richardson, himself a retired brigadier general, "making sure that we have the finest equipment available so that our Soldiers come back safely."

Both the mayor and brigade commander stressed the importance of keeping the community connection strong with its Soldiers, many of whom live in Lakewood.

"These are your Soldiers, not mine," Norris said. "Seventy percent of our Soldiers live out in the community. They represent you when they go downrange."

Don Kramer is a reporter with Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.