SCHINNEN, Netherlands – Some troops and spouses met in a school library last week as part of their preparations for an upcoming deployment.

Leading the meeting was Raquel Cajudo, the Army Community Service officer for the 254th Base Support Battalion in Schinnen.

Though her audience included some Americans, most were of other national origin.

“The interest was very high,” Cajudo said the day after. “There was a lot of curiosity in the crowd.”

That’s because most of the troops in attendance have never deployed to a war zone for a lengthy stay, in this case six months. And that alone was reason enough for some NATO troops and spouses to leave their homes on a cold evening to hear Cajudo and her staff discuss some of the challenges awaiting them and their families.

U.S. soldiers have grown accustomed to the grind, and now, slowly but surely, NATO forces are adjusting as they assume a primary role in Afghanistan.

“It’s the first time AFNORTH [Allied Forces North Europe] has deployed anywhere,” Cajudo said.

This is the first NATO mission of its kind since the alliance was founded in 1949. In August, the 5,500-strong force assumed the lead role in the International Security Assistance Force, a U.N.-mandated effort to provide security in and around Kabul, the capital.

For Cajudo’s staff, the challenge is figuring out how to help “prepare these families for a lengthy separation.”

“Our ACS is taking a more aggressive approach” in preparing people for lengthy deployments, Cajudo said.

The primary task of the ACS in Schinnen is supporting U.S. personnel dispersed over the Benelux and northern Germany. Initiatives such as the Relocation Readiness program and Army Family Team Building address issues ranging from financial and relocation matters to health and counseling services.

Throughout the Army, interest in deployment support on the home front has grown from where it was a year ago, before the United States and Britain invaded Iraq. Walk around the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division in Wiesbaden, Germany, or the 1st Infantry Division up the road in Würzburg, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about issues surrounding the deployment and return of troops.

Deployment support strives to better prepare individuals and families for long separations and for the eventual homecoming. Troops perform best, the thinking goes, when a network of support backs up their families.

Schinnen has always offered such support, Cajudo said, but it was sporadic and often in “ones” and “twos.” There just aren’t that many soldiers in and around Schinnen, officials say.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, have turned seemingly sleepy Schinnen into just another post to pull people from for reassignment. Cajudo estimates that in the past six months more than 80 NATO servicemembers have turned to her office for some degree of support.

“Traditionally, people came here thinking it was a quiet assignment,” said Lt. Col. Deborah Broughton, the 254th BSB commander, “but that’s not true at all anymore.”

Within NATO, interest in the U.S. Army deployment support program — dubbed Operation Ready — has risen in the last half year as the alliance assumes a leading role in Afghanistan.

The recent ACS deployment meeting drew servicemembers from such countries as Canada, Britain, Poland and Norway. Some information applied only to U.S. servicemembers, but other tidbits were of a more general nature.

“The information they put out was beneficial,” said Joan Lerdahl, the wife of a U.S. Navy intelligence specialist. If nothing else, she added, the information “was just a good reminder.”

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