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82nd Airborne brigade plays waiting game in Afghanistan

Sgt. Colton Hurley, an infantry team leader with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, leaves Combat Outpost Muqor on patrol June 27, 2012, in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.

BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — The 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team deployed looking for a fight.

The soldiers, not far removed from a 2012 deployment marked by long patrols and near daily enemy attacks, expected no less when they flew to Afghanistan to serve as the country's Theater Response Force ahead of national elections.

Once in the country, the soldiers prepped for the moment they would be called to action. On election day, they stood at the ready to fight the Taliban if needed.

But the call never came.

Although they're still preparing for the worse, the soldiers are discovering that the Afghanistan they left in 2012 isn't the same country they returned to.

The job of fighting off insurgents now falls to Afghan national security forces. And 1st Brigade soldiers, left on the sidelines, are working to stay prepared while also filling a number of other roles in the war effort.

"We're here to support," said Capt. Nicolas Perez, commander of B Company, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. "But we haven't done much other than training to stay prepared."

Perez's soldiers are based at Bagram Air Field in eastern Afghanistan.

Unlike other units, their mission doesn't involve a partnership with Afghan troops. They don't train, advise or assist. Instead, they stand on alert, ready to lend a hand to coalition or Afghan troops under attack.

But since arriving in late February, the deployment has been quiet — especially compared with the 2012 deployment to Ghazni province, where paratroopers lived in sparse conditions while undertaking the last major clearing operation of the war by U.S. troops.

"I see no comparison," Perez said. "It's night and day. Here we have awesome food, real beds, air conditioning. ..."

"The country's come a long way in the last two years," 1st Lt. Nick Prieto said.

At the same time, the soldiers aren't ready to relax.

B Company conducts regular training and refreshers and is one of the few deployed units that holds regularly scheduled, organized physical training.

Last week, the soldiers gathered as Air Force Staff Sgt. Colby Brookens, a joint terminal attack controller assigned to the company, explained how to use his equipment to communicate with air assets.

First Sgt. Michael Jordan said the training was important to keep paratroopers ready for anything.

"Things can change night and day in like five minutes," Jordan said.

The Theater Response Force is modeled as a small-scale version of the Global Response Force, a mission that rotates among 82nd Airborne Division brigades.

That makes the 1st Brigade uniquely qualified, its soldiers said.

"We're trained to respond to whatever we're called for," Perez said.

On election day, the soldiers were "absolutely expecting to go and absolutely prepared to go," Perez said.

That preparation is "just the way it is" for an 82nd paratrooper, Prieto said.

"It's the normal, daily business," he said. "We're ready and prepared. We could be called at any time."

Lt. Col. Mark Childress, commander of the 127th Engineer Battalion, said 1st Brigade soldiers are finding other ways to contribute to the mission in Afghanistan.

Soldiers are serving as protection for bases that are being shrunk down or closed, he said.

But he admitted that some soldiers find the deployment hard to believe.

"You come to the Super Bowl to play, not to sit and watch everyone else," he said.

Childress said he's pushing his soldiers to stay prepared for the worse while also taking advantage of their time to better themselves. He said soldiers are taking online courses to help their Army careers and other classes, like financial management, to learn how to better save money and get out of debt.

Meanwhile, the soldiers also are waiting.

Perez said it's too early to say whether the soldiers will go the entire deployment without being called to action.

"The fighting season has just begun," he said.

Until then, the soldiers will continue to prepare for the worse.

"You prepare for the big game," Jordan said. "Some of the soldiers want to get out into the fight. But be careful what you wish for."

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