DARMSTADT, Germany — Military historians should enjoy this piece of trivia: How many active-duty airborne infantry units does the U.S. Army have stationed in Germany?
It’s a trick question. As of Tuesday, the answer is none.
The last airborne infantry unit in Germany, Company E, 51st Infantry Regiment, Long Range Surveillance, inactivated Tuesday in a ceremony at Kelley Barracks.
“I don’t want to say it’s a sad day,” said 1st Sgt. William B. Halbrook, who has served in the unit more than once during his 21 years in the Army. But he said it anyway: “For me it’s a sad day.”
His commander, 1st Lt. Gary W. Carty, said the same thing.
Carty, who served 16 years in the enlisted ranks before going to Officer Candidate School, also served multiple stints in the unit, which until Tuesday was one of only two units like it in the Army, and the only such unit — a corps long-range surveillance asset — in Europe.
The cachet of being the last airborne infantry unit in the country was a point of honor for the unit’s soldiers, but so was its long — if intermittent — record of service stretching back to World War I.
The company, which returned from its second Iraq stint in September, also served in World War II, Vietnam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania. This is its fourth inactivation since entering service in 1917.
While in the past the unit was inactivated in times of relative peace for the U.S., Company E isn’t getting the ax for lack of use this time.
Since 1996, the company has been deployed for at least part of every year except 1999.
“That’s a lot for one company to shoulder, you know, over the course of 11 years,” Halbrook said after the ceremony.
Later this month, Halbrook and Carty are going to take the unit’s colors to its sister unit — Company F, 51st Infantry — at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“As of today, there’s one active-duty company like this left — that’s fox trot 51st at Fort Bragg,” Halbrook said. “It’s part of the Army transformation, you know. It’s hard to say anything bad about that; I just hate to see the company go.”
Now, each brigade is going to have its own long-range surveillance assets, though they won’t go out as far as Company E used to, Carty said.
Before the war in Iraq began, teams of Company E soldiers were as far as 250 miles behind enemy lines as conventional U.S. ground forces prepared to punch into the Iraqi desert. A lack of air assets to support the company’s clandestine missions — its covert six-man teams were usually inserted by helicopter until recently — caused them to change the way they operated during their last deployment.
It wasn’t a typical infantryman’s job, but “if the unit was still here, I would love to stay,” said Staff Sgt. Reywendy Morillo, who spent a little more than two years with the company.
With orders to Fort Hood, Texas, and the company’s colors cased — possibly for good — he knows that’s not possible.
“Everything comes to an end.”