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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addresses U.S. and Latvian soldiers at Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia, in August 2022. Austin will visit Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, to meet with 18th Airborne Corps soldiers who just returned from a nine-month deployment to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addresses U.S. and Latvian soldiers at Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia, in August 2022. Austin will visit Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, to meet with 18th Airborne Corps soldiers who just returned from a nine-month deployment to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Julian Kemper/U.S. Air Force)

ATLANTA — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday will visit Fort Bragg, N.C., to meet with 18th Airborne Corps soldiers who just returned from a nine-month deployment to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, defense officials announced.

Austin will meet with troops from several units on the sprawling Army post, talk with top officials at base commands, and host a discussion with service spouses, according to officials at the Pentagon and Fort Bragg. Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, who took command of the 18th Airborne Corps in March while deployed to Europe, is among the commanders Austin is expected to meet with during his visit.

Donahue deployed to Europe in February initially as the commander of Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne Division, portions of which President Joe Biden rapidly deployed onto the Continent to bolster NATO’s defenses as the Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared imminent. The general, who was the last American soldier to leave Afghanistan last year, then took command of the 18th Airborne Corps in March. The unit’s former commander, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, left Europe to take charge of U.S. Central Command. The corps’ change of command came just days after Russia launched its attack of Ukraine, which is now stretching into its ninth month.

Donahue and much of the corps’ 300-soldier headquarters unit returned to Fort Bragg over the weekend, officials said. The corps spent nine months in Wiesbaden, Germany, after deploying on almost no notice. The soldiers were charged with providing U.S. European Command and NATO a top-level headquarters element to aid in command and control of the more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Europe since the Russians began massing forces around Ukraine early this year.

The 18th Airborne Corps later took control of much of the U.S.-led training and equipping mission for Ukrainian forces conducted in Eastern European countries in recent months, according to Fort Bragg officials.

“Our soldiers answered the nation’s call by supporting our European allies and partners during a historic period,” Donahue said in a statement Monday. ‘We thank them and their families for their sacrifice and welcome them back home to the place that is the beacon of liberty.”

For Austin, the trip will mark a homecoming of sorts for the retired four-star general who spent much of his career at Fort Bragg. Austin commanded a company, a battalion and a brigade in the 82nd Airborne Division during his Army career. In 2006, he returned for his final tour at Fort Bragg as the 18th Airborne Corps commander. He led the corps in 2008 on a yearlong deployment to Iraq.

Fort Bragg has made headlines in recent months after top officials there made an unplanned decision to condemn 13 barracks buildings that were plagued with mold and heating, ventilation and air condition problems. Officials this month completed the process of removing 1,200 soldiers who had been living in the 1970s-era Smoke Bomb Hill barracks complex to other housing on and off the installation. Five of the complex’s buildings will be renovated in the coming years, while the rest are scheduled for demolition, base leaders have said.

Austin is not expected to visit the condemned barracks, a Fort Bragg official said Monday. The defense secretary could discuss barracks and housing issues with the soldiers with whom he meets, the official said.

The defense secretary’s visit also comes just weeks after he authorized military leaders to begin the process to change the names of several Army installations named for Confederate leaders, including Fort Bragg, which was named for Gen. Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general during the Civil War. It was established as Camp Bragg in 1918 as an artillery training ground for U.S. troops preparing to fight in World War I.

Austin on Oct. 6 announced he had accepted the recommendations of a congressional Naming Commission, which suggested the renaming of Fort Bragg to Fort Liberty. It also called for the renaming of eight other southern Army bases named for Confederates: Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Gordon in Georgia, Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Pickett in Virginia, Fort Polk in Louisiana and Fort Rucker in Alabama.

The commission in its final report to Congress said the name Fort Liberty would commemorate “the American value of Liberty.”

The defense secretary established a working group to review the Naming Commission’s full report, develop a plan of action and oversee the implementation of the commission’s recommendations. That process is expected to begin about Dec. 18, as Congress mandated a 90-day waiting period before defense officials could begin the actual renaming process after the commission’s work was completed.

“The department’s implementation of the commission’s recommendations … will give proud new names that are rooted in their local communities and that honor American heroes whose valor, courage and patriotism exemplify the very best of the United States military,” Austin wrote in his Oct. 6 order.

The entrance to Fort Bragg, N.C., is shown in this undated file photo. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, to meet with 18th Airborne Corps soldiers who just returned from a nine-month deployment to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The entrance to Fort Bragg, N.C., is shown in this undated file photo. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Fort Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, to meet with 18th Airborne Corps soldiers who just returned from a nine-month deployment to Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Logan Mock-Bunting, Getty Images/TNS)

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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