FORT BRAGG -- While political leaders negotiate the terms of the drawdown of NATO forces from Afghanistan, Fort Bragg soldiers still are deploying to -- and dying in -- the war-torn country.
More than 700 troops from Fort Bragg are in the process of deploying to Afghanistan, including about 500 from the 18th Airborne Corps' Headquarters Battalion, which is taking over at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command. There, they will work with their Afghan counterparts to manage the ground war throughout Afghanistan.
"You are writing the next chapter of 18th Airborne Corps' rich history," Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command, told members of the battalion Thursday.
The group had gathered on the main parade field at Fort Bragg for a flag-casing ceremony, at which the unit's flag is rolled up and stashed in its casing before traveling to a new post. It will be unfurled in another ceremony when the unit arrives at the Joint Command headquarters in Kabul.
The ceremony gave commanders an opportunity to thank, again, the soldiers who serve and the families and communities who support them, and to remind the public that U.S. troops are still at war.
Those connected to military bases in the state need little in the way of reminders; they get them in the form of somber announcements such as the one Thursday from the Department of Defense. It announced the death of Daniel T. Lee, a Special Forces soldier based at Fort Bragg.
Lee, 28, of Crossville, Tenn., died Wednesday when enemy forces attacked his unit with small-arms fire during combat operations, the military said.
Lee was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group. He was married and the father of a 6-month-old son, according to The Associated Press. He was on his first deployment to Afghanistan. He had deployed earlier to Iraq.
Most of the soldiers going with the 18th Airborne Corps to Afghanistan have likely deployed at least once; some, many times.
The unit was last sent to Afghanistan in 2002, early in the war. After that, it went three times to Iraq, the last time in 2010-11, when it took over the job of winding down that war, as it will do in Afghanistan.
Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, said the unit's experience in Iraq should help it in Afghanistan. For now, he said he is not concerned with what U.S. involvement in the country will look like after this year.
Out by end of year?
President Barack Obama has said he wants U.S. combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year, though U.S. troops likely would remain as part of a NATO force focused on counterterrorism and supporting Afghan security forces. The terms under which the NATO forces would stay beyond 2014 have not been completed.
Anderson is leaving those discussions to NATO leaders. What he and his soldiers will focus on this year are Afghan elections and the summer fighting season. In 2013, the Defense Department said, American and coalition combat deaths dropped by almost 60 percent but the number of Afghan security forces killed was nearly 80 percent higher than the previous year.
High casualties among the security forces result in a high attrition rate, making it more difficult for the Afghans to handle their own security needs.
Anderson will leave for Afghanistan in about a week.
Other soldiers from Fort Bragg are already in Afghanistan. Members of two elements of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed last year, and more are scheduled to go this year. Special Forces soldiers, logisticians and an airlift wing from Fort Bragg are also there.
In all, Fort Bragg will have more than 4,000 troops in Afghanistan this year to help get U.S. military equipment out of the country and to help train and support Afghan security forces to take over.
There are now about 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. At the peak of U.S. involvement there in 2011, there were 101,000. At least 2,200 U.S. service members have died in the war.
'Shut out the lights'
About 200 members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, are scheduled to leave for Afghanistan on Sunday night. They will provide base and convoy security for U.S. and NATO forces.
Sgt. 1st Class Charles Clevenger is going with the headquarters unit. The yearlong deployment will be his fourth, his second to Afghanistan. He went twice to Iraq.
Clevenger said he's glad to see an end in sight to U.S. combat deployments to Afghanistan.
"Hopefully, we'll shut out the lights and go home," he said.