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The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team will be heading downrange a little earlier than expected. And instead of going to Iraq, the Sky Soldiers will be heading back to Afghanistan in the spring.

The announcement Wednesday from U.S. Army Europe contrasted with a January announcement that the brigade would be going to Iraq this summer with a number of other Europe-based units.

The 173rd BCT is slated to relieve the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which was recently extended for up to 120 days while the unit was in its 12th month of its deployment to Afghanistan, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

“If you wanted to have a unit ready to go to backfill 3-10 in 120 days, this is a unit that was of course, obviously, preparing to deploy, and was already anticipating a deployment at about this time, and that’s why the sourcing for the replacement of 3-10 went this way,” Whitman told reporters on Wednesday.

Deploying the 173rd will maintain U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan at 27,000, officials said.

News of the 173rd’s deployment comes ahead of an anticipated Taliban offensive this spring.

How the soldiers in the 173rd will be used will be up to the overall NATO commander in Afghanistan, Whitman said.

The Defense Department has not yet announced which unit will replace the 173rd in the upcoming Iraq rotation, Whitman said.

Soldiers assigned to the brigade, headquartered in Vicenza, Italy, didn’t seem to mind the change when contacted by phone.

“It’s a deployment,” said Spc. Joseph Lollino, who served eight months with the 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan in 2005-2006. That battalion has since changed its designation to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. “It’s pretty much the same.”

“Really, no change,” said Pfc. John Gailey, who joined the same battalion in June, a few months after it returned from a yearlong stint in Afghanistan. “We were in the mind-set that we knew we were going to deploy, so it’s not much of a change for us.”

Maj. Nicholas Sternberg, the brigade’s public affairs officer, said the brigade had not yet received specific dates on when it would deploy or where it would be sent in Afghanistan. During the previous deployment, the brigade was headquartered in Kandahar. The 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment was based to the north in Qalat and the 1-508 was even further afield, with its headquarters at Orgun-E.

Maj. Pete Benchoff spent time at Orgun-E after initially serving on the staff of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne), which served as the headquarters of Combined Joint Task Force-76 from Bagram Air Base. Benchoff is now the executive officer of the 1-503.

He said he saw some positives in the fact that the brigade was heading back to a country it left less than a year ago.

“Clearly, we’ve got a lot of senior leadership that served in Afghanistan the last time,” he said. “We’ve got experience working with our Afghan partners and other agencies. Of course, the environment has changed, and we’ve got a lot to learn from the unit we’ll be replacing.”

Many of those currently serving as Sky Soldiers haven’t been to Afghanistan. The existing brigade experienced a turnover of about 60 percent when it returned from Afghanistan. And three new battalions have been added since then. Currently, two of the brigade’s battalions are based in Vicenza. Three more are based in Bamberg, Germany, and another in Schweinfurt, Germany. They’re all due to be based in Vicenza at some point, but that’s not expected to take place for several years.

Bruce Anderson, USAREUR public affairs officer, said the timetable or destination hasn’t changed for the other units, including the 12th Aviation Combat Brigade and elements from the 21st Theater Support Command, that were mentioned in the January announcement. They are still scheduled to deploy to Iraq in the summer.

Sternberg said some modifications would be made to the training that the brigade had scheduled for Hohenfels in March. Afghanistan doesn’t generally offer the urban fighting conditions that Iraq does.

The terrain in Afghanistan is more mountainous, the infrastructure more basic, and there are other differences, such as culture and language. Soldiers from the brigade have spent time recently learning about Iraq and they’ll have to switch gears some.

Still, Benchoff said he thought the brigade’s training so far was beneficial and would serve it well.

“It’s an important mission, as the secretary of defense has outlined recently,” he said. “It’s one I think the brigade is well-suited for. We have our orders and we’ll execute them well.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report.

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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