The 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade has begun sending its first waves of soldiers to Afghanistan, where part of the brigade will take on a mission that covers most of the country.
The brigade will be based at Bagram Airfield, but its soldiers eventually will be spread across two regional commands. The area is about the size of North Carolina and Virginia.
The 82nd CAB, which last deployed to Afghanistan in 2012, will take over for two other combat aviation brigades: the 159th CAB from Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 16th CAB from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
Col. Michael Musiol, commander of the 82nd CAB, said his soldiers are expected to do more with less as their helicopters cover a wide swath of Afghanistan in support of coalition troops.
He cautioned that the soldiers expect a fight, even as U.S. troops move toward a smaller presence there.
"A drawdown is still a war," Musiol said.
The colonel said the biggest challenges will be terrain, weather and the enemy.
"It is a challenging environment," he said. "Insurgents will want to make a statement."
"Whether it's the enemy or the terrain, something will reach out and grab a helicopter," he said.
Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Yeargan Jr. said it is important to remember that U.S. troops remain targets, even as their presence in Afghanistan shrinks.
"The enemy still has a vote in everything we're going to do," Yeargan said. "Afghanistan is still a war. There's still a fight going on."
"We're drawing down; the enemy is not," Yeargan said.
The 82nd CAB commander said he expects much from his troops. He wants them to "be as ruthless as we can on insurgents" and take "extraordinary measures" to protect the troops on the ground.
It will be up to Musiol and other commanders to position the soldiers for success. With fewer soldiers patrolling the skies, officials will have to be more deliberate with air support.
"It's a chess game," Musiol said. "We want to get it right and meet requirements. Nothing moves without aviation."
In the past, aviation brigades in Afghanistan have set a goal of having a 24-hour presence in the skies of Afghanistan. Musiol said that is not feasible as the war continues to change, and fewer troops are based there.
The 82nd CAB will use helicopters that have been in Afghanistan for years, Musiol said, and it will be a challenge to keep the aircraft up and running.
"We will maintain coverage as best we can," Musiol said.
Coalition forces also will have a heavy reliance on unmanned aerial systems, he said.
About 1,700 soldiers will deploy to Afghanistan.
The brigade's medical evacuation company, Company C, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, deployed in July. The rest of the brigade began to deploy earlier this month.
Musiol said the brigade will start to draw back its presence after just a few months. Only about half of the deploying soldiers will remain past the start of Operation Resolute Support, the code name for the continued coalition mission in Afghanistan past this year.
The refueling mission and the maintenance of U.S. helicopters eventually will be passed on to contractors, Musiol said.
Meanwhile, the 82nd CAB will be expected to help train the Afghan Air Force, which is largely a fleet of helicopters.
Yeargan said Army aviation was the most deployed type of unit in the past decade. But he and Chief Warrant Officer 5 George Kessler said many of the soldiers deploying have not seen combat before.
"You get used to having multiple deployments," Kessler said. "But they seem to get younger each time."
Musiol does not think inexperience in combat is a bad thing.
"There's something to be said about being a little anxious, a little fearful, about a deployment," he said.
Yeargan agreed. He said young soldiers have no expectations on a deployment, so they may be able to better adapt to conditions. Regardless of the experience, all the soldiers will have to adapt, officials said.
"This is a different deployment than all the others," Kessler said.
In addition to a larger mission, the soldiers will go without many of the comforts some have grown used to on deployments. Fewer hot meals, less connectivity to the outside world and even a lack of laundry services are some of the conditions the brigade can expect.
The 82nd CAB has been heavily deployed over the past dozen years of war, and Musiol's command team is also experienced. In that time, the brigade has deployed three times each to Iraq and Afghanistan. Its last deployment in 2012 supported forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Musiol, Kessler and Yeargan have all deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
When not deployed, the unit has more often than not been tasked with part of the Global Response Force mission, meaning it must be prepared to deploy to anywhere in the world for combat or humanitarian missions on little notice.
It held that mission while also preparing for this deployment over the past 16 months, Musiol said.
Soldiers have trained on and off at Fort Bragg, including a mission practice in high altitude near Fort Bliss, Texas, and three rotations to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
The 82nd CAB volunteered for some of those JRTC missions to help prepare for the deployment.
But the unit also was in a unique position for Army aviation.
While many helicopters were grounded during severe budget cuts across the Department of Defense last year, the 82nd CAB, like the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division and other Fort Bragg units, was shielded from the brunt of those cuts.
For the past 18 months, it has been the best resourced aviation unit in the Army, Musiol said. While some brigades grounded their fleets, the Fort Bragg soldiers kept flying.
Kessler said that training and experience means no unit is better qualified for the upcoming mission.
"I really believe that," he said.
Musiol said there has been a concerted effort to keep his soldiers from wearing out during the sometimes intense training.
The brigade returned from Afghanistan and turned over about half of its force before stepping into its Global Response Force role.
"Everything the 82nd Airborne Division does, aviation has a piece of it," Musiol said. "There's never enough aviation."
Even as some parts of the brigade have already deployed, the 82nd CAB is still accepting soldiers who are transferring into the unit specifically to deploy.
The brigade will take control of the helicopter mission in eastern Afghanistan next month. It will assume the mission in southern Afghanistan 45 days later.
That scope of responsibility will be the biggest difference on this latest deployment. It will be working with fewer forces, but those forces will be spread much further.
Using only one American aviation brigade to cover Afghanistan is nothing new. That is the structure that was in place in the early days of the war. But as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan increased, so did helicopter support.
At the peak of the war, there were three combat aviation brigades there at a time.
But small bases that once served as refueling points for helicopters no longer exist, further complicating the logistical difficulties.
Officials have told 82nd CAB soldiers to "pack light" — warning that crews may continually shift to bases throughout Afghanistan as coalition forces continue to close bases and consolidate.
"Aviation will be there to the end," Musiol said. "We'll be there until they tell us to go home."
©2014 The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.