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Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment offer salutes Thursday during a ceremony at Caserma Ederle that featured the casing of the colors for the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The ''Sky Soldiers'' are getting set to start a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan.

Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment offer salutes Thursday during a ceremony at Caserma Ederle that featured the casing of the colors for the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. The ''Sky Soldiers'' are getting set to start a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. (Kent Harris/Stars and Stripes)

VICENZA, Italy — The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team officially said goodbye to its home base Thursday as it prepares to deploy to Afghanistan.

The nine-month deployment will be the Sky Soldiers’ fourth mission to Afghanistan in six years. Since 2005, soldiers from the unit have been in Afghanistan every year except 2011. This rotation, they’ll be returning to Logar and Wardak provinces, taking over for the 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division.

“Back to the same place,” Col. Andrew Rohling, brigade commander, said after the casing of the colors ceremony. He and Maj. Gen. David R. Hogg, commander of U.S. Army Africa, made brief remarks at the ceremony, which drew a large crowd to Hoekstra Field on Caserma Ederle.

About 60 percent of those deploying served in the brigade during its last deployment to the two provinces in 2009-2010, Rohling said. That doesn’t count those (including the commander) who have served multiple tours with the unit on other rotations.

“It’s always an advantage when you know the map,” he said. “Still, we have a lot of new guys who haven’t been there.”

They all have been through two training rotations in Hohenfels, Germany, and another simulated exercise, though.

“I think we’re probably as trained as any brigade who’s deployed to the country,” Rohling said.

Despite all the familiarity, there are some differences with this deployment.

It will be the first time the 173rd deploys for nine months, instead of a year or longer.

About 20 percent of the brigade will stay behind at bases in Italy and Germany – more than on any deployment since the Sky Soldiers jumped into northern Iraq in 2003.

“It’s about transition,” Rohling said of this Afghanistan deployment. “Our job is to ‘win’ through transition.”

That means working with Afghan forces almost every hour of every day to get them prepared to take over before the U.S. pulls out most of its combat forces by 2014.

“The challenge for us, along with any unit in Afghanistan, is: ‘How do you do that the best that you can?’ ” he said.

Several hundred members of the unit are already in Afghanistan and Rohling said other soldiers will join them over the next several weeks. In Bamberg, Germany, the brigade’s Base Support Battalion also cased its colors Thursday.

That should put the unit back in Italy and Germany well in advance of the opening of the brigade’s new consolidated home in Vicenza. Caserma Del Din, commonly known as the Dal Molin Air Field, is set to open in stages, starting in the summer of 2013.

harrisk@estripes.osd.mil

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.

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