FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When hundreds of Fort Bragg paratroopers jumped into the Florida panhandle under the cover of darkness Wednesday, it was the culmination of more than two days of planning and preparation.
Behind the scenes, thousands of soldiers, airmen and civilians worked on short notice to ensure the soldiers could accomplish their mission, proving the 82nd Airborne Division could accomplish its "bread and butter" mission to deploy anywhere in the world with little notice.
In its simplest terms, the mission conducted by elements of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team was a familiar one on Fort Bragg, home to the units that form the core of the Global Response Force — often referred to as the nation's 911 military force.
The soldiers, the bulk of whom belonged to 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, jumped onto an airfield at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, seized it and prepared it for follow-on troops and equipment to land in C-130J cargo planes.
The soldiers then pushed out in helicopters to assault more distant objectives.
Those types of missions are relatively commonplace on Fort Bragg, where 82nd Airborne paratroopers repeatedly hone their skills in case they are needed to jump into a hostile environment or to help provide humanitarian relief.
But last week's exercise was not a typical training event.
By flying to Florida, the 82nd Airborne continued a push to return to its roots.
During the last decade, paratroopers focused on a steady rotation of deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, even though thousands of paratroopers still serve in Afghanistan, the division has emphasized a "back to basics" approach to prepare soldiers for unknown threats.
Part of that transition has involved the return of Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises, or EDREs, that take paratroopers far from the well-known training areas of Fort Bragg.
Fly-away EDREs were common before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, officials said. Unlike other training events, soldiers don't know where or when they will travel, and they don't know their objectives.
Once notice is given, the soldiers are required to be ready in as little as 18 hours, but usually no more than a few days.
"Most of the deployments over the last decade have been known deployments," said Col. Brian Winski, the 82nd Airborne's deputy commanding general for operations. "The units, in general terms, knew well in advance when they were deploying, where they were deploying to."
With short notice, emergency operations, the soldiers don't have the luxury of months to prepare.
Col. Curtis A. Buzzard, commander of the 82nd Airborne's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said training off-post prevents soldiers from "pulling plans off the shelf."
Going to an unknown or unfamiliar location forces soldiers at every level to plan for multiple scenarios and think on their feet, he said.
"It helps us maintain our edge in terms of readiness," Buzzard said. "It's a unique sense of realism."
Lt. Col. Jake Larkowich, commander of 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said the alert came early Monday and planning began immediately.
The battalion formed the bulk of the task force, with other soldiers taking part based on the mission.
Soldiers were told they needed to seize the airfield, then move to their other objectives.
One was a chemical weapons plant that needed to be secured. The other was a raid on a high-value target.
Thrusting hundreds of paratroopers into unknown terrain on such short notice has its challenges, he said. But the benefits are worth the risk.
"You can't cheat forward," Larkowich said. "This is a surprise when you hit the ground. If I was a young paratrooper, I'd be excited right now."
By Wednesday afternoon, more than 400 soldiers were at Green Ramp on Pope Field waiting to fly to Florida.
They spent the two days in-between checking their equipment and planning for the exercise.
Spc. Gabriel Blair, a soldier with A Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said he was confident in his training and ready for the mission.
"Everything is prepared," he said. "You always get nervous when you're preparing to jump, but as far as training, everything goes fine."
Blair, a mortarman, said he had checked his equipment repeatedly while waiting at Green Ramp.
"Once you're up in the bird, that's scary," he said. "That's the wrong time to realize something's wrong."
Staff Sgt. Jose Arroyo, another soldier in A Company, has deployed four times into combat. He said the training was valuable, because it closely resembles how a quick deployment might occur.
"We look at it as real life," he said. "You can't treat it differently than actual deployment."
Since the notification July 14, Arroyo said he checked in with his men to ensure they were prepared. He appeared calm as he waited and chatted with his team during a dinner break.
"I'm always nervous about jumping out of a plane and the unknown, but as a leader, we have to be ready for what's unexpected," he said. "I'm just looking forward to seeing how my men will perform."
Winski, who served as exercise director, called the EDRE a "no notice, no kidding" exercise.
He said short notice deployments were important to practice, given the 82nd Airborne's role in the nation's military.
"It's critical. Here in the 82nd Airborne Division, everyone in the division has a mind-set and a sense of preparedness to jump, fight and win tonight," Winski said. "To maintain that and all the systems that allow us to do it, we have to exercise it."
Training off-post enhances the realism, he said.
Buzzard said training off Fort Bragg with little notice was exciting.
He recalled similar training when he was a young officer in the 82nd Airborne.
Then, soldiers would travel across the country and into Canada for training as part of what was then referred to as the Division Readiness Force.
If the division were to limit training to Fort Bragg, it risks soldiers getting complacent, he said.
"That's what we don't want to do," Buzzard said.
Buzzard said his soldiers have a great deal of experience with the mission, but he said he still expected them to learn something.
"We're going to learn some stuff as we execute this," he said. "This battalion — like most in the 82nd — they haven't done one of these before."
Winski said the 82nd Airborne has conducted regular and routine EDREs in recent years, but rarely left Fort Bragg, instead practicing the preparation only.
Now, the missions will take place at least four times a year.
The "big event" always will be an airfield seizure, officials said.
It's a skill the division, and the Army as a whole, must have, Winski said.
"Most of (the Army) has to air land. They can't jump in a Bradley or a tank company or a Stryker company, and the aviation task force obviously has to land," Winski said. "It's absolutely critical."
The 82nd Airborne Division returned to fly-away EDREs earlier this year, when paratroopers traveled to Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, in February.
In Virginia, paratroopers trained with the State Department and special operations forces to prepare for a situation similar to what happened in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, when an American diplomatic compound was overrun.
In Florida, the 82nd Airborne Division worked with soldiers and helicopters from Hunter Army Airfield, as well as soldiers from the Eglin-based 7th Special Forces Group.
Air crews from the 317th Airlift Group, based at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, flew the paratroopers to Florida. Soldiers from 1st Brigade posed as opposition forces, Winski said.
The exercise, which included 36 hours in Florida, also tested the 82nd Airborne's ability to command and control the paratroopers from its operations center on Fort Bragg and also gave paratroopers the opportunity to work with AC-130 Spectre gunships.
While the EDRE is an example of going "back to basics," it's not an exact return to training of years' past, Winski said.
While the training is similar to what has been the hallmark of 82nd Airborne training for decades, it has been refined and improved.
One improvement is the partnership with special operations forces.
Training with operators, particularly Special Forces, is the new norm for the 82nd, officials said.
To be more effective, the 82nd Airborne needs to be able to coordinate with Special Forces, who are regionally focused and aligned. Special Forces soldiers have regional expertise that could prove invaluable in any quick deployment, he said.
"Any scenario where the Global Response Force is committed, we would link up with and harness the capabilities and expertise of special operations forces from that region," Winski said. "Our regional focus is the globe. We need to be prepared to respond everywhere."
Buzzard agreed. He said it was essential to maintain a close partnership with special operations forces and develop personal relationships with those soldiers.
"We can't think of anywhere we would go where special operations forces wouldn't already be there," he said.
Almost all future training will involve special operations forces on some level, Winski said.
Lt. Col. Phillip Jenison, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, doubles as the Outload Support Battalion commander.
The battalion is formed from elements of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
While a lesser-known mission than other soldiers on the Global Response Force, the Outload Support Battalion is no less important, Jenison said.
Jenison said his soldiers were there to transport, maintain and supply the paratroopers preparing to deploy.
"This is critical," he said.
If equipment isn't loaded correctly, or troops aren't outfitted, they can't deploy.
"There are thousands of soldiers supporting getting this unit off of Fort Bragg and then reinforcing this unit immediately after," Winski said, crediting the 82nd Sustainment Brigade and other 18th Airborne Corps units based on Fort Bragg. "It has to be. It has to be a division, corps and installation focused endeavor to be able to meet these incredibly tight and demanding timelines."
For every paratrooper who deployed, it took at least three soldiers or civilians to get him ready, including riggers, medical soldiers and other support elements, Jenison said.
"This becomes the main effort of Fort Bragg," he said. "We're all paratroopers. We're all trying to accomplish the mission."
Hours before the paratroopers were in the air, they were being outfitted with ammunition, medical supplies and other equipment.
Capt. Jon Duncan, commander of Troop B, 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, said his soldiers' mission began as soon as the notice to deploy was given.
Troop B was tasked with supplying the paratroopers, as part of the Outload Support Battalion.
Duncan said his soldiers ran the Individual Issue Ammunition Site, or IIA.
Once paratroopers are notified of the mission, soldiers must begin assembling for the site within two hours, Duncan said. The site has to be operational within five hours.
The site is then responsible for loading ammunition and other supplies onto the vehicles that will be flown in, as well as the paratroopers themselves.
As soldiers arrive by bus, they are directed into lines to retrieve their weapons case, ammunition and other supplies, then allowed to pack and weigh their gear.
In all, the soldiers doled out more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition for M-4, M-240B and M-249 rifles.
"We're a customer service organization," Troop 1st Sgt. Jason Milstead said. "In real life, the soldiers would be nervous and unsure, we're here to help them."
"We've been through this on the other side," Milstead said. "We know there's a flow. There's control to all the madness."