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Soldiers remain on lockdown over missing equipment

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Some 100 soldiers and unit leaders remained on a restricted lockdown for a sixth day at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state on Monday while Army investigators probed the theft of sensitive optics equipment, a base spokesman said.

The missing gear includes hundreds of night-vision goggles and missing weapons accessories worth about $630,000, said Major Chris Ophardt, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's I Corps at the base, about 9 miles south of Tacoma.

Ophardt said base confinement is an extreme measure of punishment meant to elicit information.

"The Army takes property accountability very seriously," Ophardt said, adding there was "no end in sight" to restrictions for the soldiers while the equipment is missing.

Those suspected in the thefts could face criminal charges and, if convicted, be required to pay back the government.

Under restrictions that were eased on Saturday, soldiers are allowed visits from family members. They may also participate in cafeteria-style chow dining and attend medical appointments outside their barracks under supervision.

The missing equipment is not dangerous to the public by itself, since the accessories attach to military-grade weapons and take specialized training to operate, Ophardt said.

"You can't just attach it and go out and become Rambo," he said.

In a statement released on Monday, the Army's Criminal Investigation Command office in Quantico, Virginia said that "no weapons or ammunition are missing as part of this investigation."

The Army is offering a $10,000 reward for conviction of those responsible for the theft from a supply area on the base sometime between December 14 and January 3, according to a poster distributed on base and at nearby pawn shops.

The soldiers are members of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The nine leaders include a captain and four lieutenants, three sergeants first-class and a 1st sergeant. They were confined to barracks during the unusual lockdown that began on January 4.

A routine inventory check failed to account for the accessories that include goggles, laser sights, rifle telescope-spotting scopes and telescope machine gun optics.

Meanwhile, online anti-war protesters and members of March Forward! -- a group of veterans and military members "against war and racism" -- said they had gathered several hundred signatures to seek release of the restricted soldiers.

Kevin Baker, a former 4th Stryker Brigade soldier, began circulating the online petition to end the lockdown on Sunday.

"The chain of command is meeting resistance from the ranks," Baker said. "This punishes family members."

Jorge Gonzalez, executive director of Coffee Strong, a "veteran-owned, veteran-operated" coffee house in Lakewood, Washington told Reuters that Lewis-McChord rank-and-file soldiers are angry about the lockdown restrictions.

"Everyone who comes in here is opposed to it," Gonzalez said.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb)

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