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Mega-base in Afghanistan a big change for soldiers of the 508th

A soldier provides security for Quick Reaction Force vehicles at Kandahar Air Field, April 23, 2014.

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan  A lot has changed in two years.

In 2012, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment was in a different brigade within the 82nd Airborne Division. And while it was in southern Afghanistan, it now finds itself in very different conditions with a very different mission.

With most smaller coalition bases closing or closed, the Fort Bragg paratroopers who in the past have deployed to some of Afghanistan's most remote bases now find themselves on mega-bases like Kandahar Airfield.

It's an adjustment that some appreciate but has others yearning for the days of isolation at small combat outposts.

"It's different, is the best way to put it," said Staff Sgt. Shane Dixon, who is on his fourth deployment.

Dixon deployed with the battalion in 2012, when it was still part of the 4th Brigade Combat Team. While only a short flight from where he was stationed then, he said the two tours are worlds apart.

"Here, we have everything," he said. "Meals, showers, no patrols. It's not the way it used to be. It's a little more relaxed."

But that's not necessarily a good thing, Dixon said.

In the past, he said, he and other paratroopers resented the troops at large bases like Kandahar Airfield, Bagram Airfield and Forward Operating Base Sharana.

At Kandahar  whose Boardwalk is home to stores, a juice bar, ice cream shops and, until recently, TGI Friday's -- Dixon said he had a simple reaction to being stationed there.

"Holy smokes  this is unreal," he said of his reaction to the Boardwalk. "I'd almost rather be at the smaller outposts. There are less headaches."

D Company has a guardian angel mission, meaning it protects contractors and military officials on visits to Afghan partners.

The company commander, Capt. Kyle Abruzzese, said his paratroopers have performed phenomenally well, rotating among several groups that routinely travel around Regional Command South.

Abruzzese said this deployment is different from the one in 2012, when the soldiers regularly patrolled and regularly came under fire.

"It's still a very important mission," he said.

Abruzzese said he thinks the paratroopers appreciated the deployment and how it has many of the creature comforts that have been lacking in years pasts.

He said he encourages downtime to help create physical and mental breaks from the day-to-day grind of the deployment.

Kandahar has seven dining facilities, multiple gyms and wireless Internet, he said. But the soldiers do not take those niceties for granted.

"In an instant, things can go catastrophically wrong," he said.

To prepare for the worst, you can frequently find D Company paratroopers on the ranges of Kandahar Airfield.

Soldiers said each platoon tries to go to the range once a week so they can hone their skills. They also conduct other training exercises, including ones in combat medical care.

Off the ranges and when not on missions, the soldiers said it is hard to avoid the Boardwalk, no matter how it makes them feel.

"It's difficult sometimes," said Staff Sgt. Clayton Farris, who is on his third deployment. "We have higher standards than others, so it's tough seeing those units on the Boardwalk."

"But it's nice to have an easier deployment," he said. "Everyone is pretty happy with everyone being able to stay safe and get back in one piece."

Spc. Chris Stein said he knew this deployment would not be like others but he was still shocked by Kandahar Airfield.

Stein, on his first deployment, said older soldiers gave him good advice but did not prepare him for Kandahar.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "It kind of blew my mind."

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