New faces, familiar training for the 173rd
January 17, 2009
VICENZA, Italy — The patches, the uniforms and a lot of the equipment will be the same. But by the time the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team is called upon to deploy again, there will be a lot of new faces among the Sky Soldiers.
Command Sgt. Maj. Nicolas Rolling took over his duties in October — shortly after the brigade returned from more than a year in Afghanistan. Since then, 1,400 soldiers have left for other units or decided to pursue other careers.
"That’s about a 50 percent drop-off," Rolling said Wednesday in an interview at the brigade’s headquarters.
He said the brigade’s ranks are currently about 65 percent filled and he doesn’t expect to reach full strength again until July — a few months before the brigade might be expected to deploy again.
Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for U.S. Army Europe, said the 173rd has not received any deployment orders. He said USAREUR doesn’t issue such orders, but announces them in conjunction with the Department of Defense. Units are given a minimum of 12 months back at their home base before deploying again, with a goal of 15 months at home.
Rolling said that could mean the brigade might deploy as early as September.
Troops in the three communities the brigade currently calls home — Vicenza, and Bamberg and Schweinfurt in Germany — are currently working on individual skills.
Almost 300 soldiers are attending jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. About 600 more are currently either trying to attain an expert infantry badge or providing support for that. The brigade’s Special Troops Battalion is going through certification on communications equipment. Artillery soldiers start training next week with their heavy weapons and drivers and mechanics with the brigade’s support battalion are refining their skills.
Rolling said by the time the brigade reaches full strength, about a quarter of the force will be new to the Army. And maybe a third of the force will be deploying for the first time.
But there are others who have deployed with other units to Iraq or Afghanistan or are returning to the brigade after spending time elsewhere. Rolling himself falls into both categories. A former first sergeant with the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment in Iraq, Rolling last served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Brigade soldiers are still training on airborne operations, though it’s probably unlikely they’ll be asked to use those skills during their deployment. About 1,000 Sky Soldiers did jump into northern Iraq in 2003. But two subsequent deployments in Afghanistan have involved mostly ground operations.
Still, the 173rd is an airborne unit for a reason, Rolling said.
"Something could happen in another part of the world or something could calm down," he said. "But what we’ve got to do is make sure we’re proficient, ready to deploy and do the things we’re supposed to do."
So soldiers have participated in six airborne jumps in Germany and Italy since returning and more are planned. Jumpmasters from Fort Benning will visit Vicenza in late January to train 50 jumpmasters and they’ll do the same in Germany a week later.