RAMADI, Iraq — Now that the last Strike Force soldier has left Iraq for the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division’s new home at Fort Carson, Colo., what’s next for both the troops and city where they spent the past 12 months?

For the unit, the coming year will be yet another time of transition: Under the Pentagon’s plan to transform the Army into a lighter, more easily deployable force, 2nd Brigade will become what’s called a Unit of Action. Some of its units will be dissolved and reconstituted, and many of its soldiers will leave the Army or move on to new assignments.

After reporting to Carson, the troops will get about a month of block leave to catch up with family and friends. And then comes “E-Day.” By Nov. 16, or “effective day,” the 2nd Brigade will become a Unit of Action. Less armor, more mobile, and ready to deploy.

“We’re facing something nobody else has coming out of Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Bob Bialek, who spent the final weeks of deployment working on the logistics of the move. Because the soldiers’ tours in South Korea were unaccompanied, their families are scattered across the globe.

One-third of the troops will probably move again within six months, he said.

“Every soldier’s situation is going to be unique, and they’re all going to be treated as individuals,” he said. “It’s hard to put it in perspective when you’re right in the middle of it.”

Some 800 of the brigade’s soldiers chose to re-enlist while in Iraq, said Master Sgt. Robert Ahern, the brigade retention noncommissioned officer. They were spurred by a mix of financial incentives and the camaraderie of serving in a war zone.

Some will be offered new military specialties as the unit transitions into its new form. The 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry, for example, will cease to exist. It will reorganize as a reconnaissance and surveillance cavalry squadron with about half the personnel of the existing unit.

The entire brigade will become a “light” unit of action, a big difference from the “light/heavy” unit it was in South Korea.

For the soldiers, the transition will be just as hard.

“The families have to know that the person that comes back is not the same person who came here,” said brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Marvell Dean. “It’s going to be a big adjustment for some families. Some of them are still in Korea, going through the visa process.”

For the city of Ramadi, and the U.S. soldiers picking up the assignment there, the future looks a lot like the recent past. American efforts will focus on training and equipping an Iraqi force capable of securing the city on its own. The first, aborted effort at that came during the January elections. Instead of Iraqi National Guard soldiers, though, the new troops are members of the Iraqi army.

Some are fresh recruits, who showed up at basic training in Baghdad in sandals and sweat suits, U.S. trainers said. But an equal number are veterans of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s army, which was disbanded in the months after the invasion in a controversial move by then-U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

Officials from 2nd Brigade say five Iraqi battalions are already operating in Ramadi. At least two more will be sent there, perhaps eventually a full division. The strategy, U.S. officers said, was to essentially flood the city with competent Iraqi troops, hopefully avoiding a decisive and bloody showdown such as that visited upon neighboring Fallujah.

Capt. Ali, a 32-year-old with a bushy mustache and slight paunch, is one of the new Iraqi army soldiers who speaks a bit of English. He has three sisters in Ramadi, but he is scared to talk to them or let them know he’s stationed there. Because the new units are made up of recruits from throughout Iraq, officials hope they’ll be less susceptible to insurgent threats.

In Saddam’s army, Ali was a chemical weapons safety training officer. He takes a lot of ribbing now about finding the fabled weapons of mass destruction that were part of the justification for invading Iraq. But he’s serious in his belief that the Iraqis themselves will solve the problem of the insurgency.

“I think in one year, maybe we can make Ramadi safe,” Ali said, adding the ubiquitous Arab qualifier of Inshallah, or “God willing.”

The 2nd Brigade officials hope he’s right.

“We’ve got a lot of blood, sweat and tears invested here,” the brigade commander, Col. Gary Patton, said in the days before he was set to depart. “We will be following the progress of Ramadi. We want to see this thing finished.”

Last in a four-part series on the 2nd Brigade’s year in Iraq.

Previous installments:

A year on the edge: 2nd BCT bound for Colorado after grueling tour in RamadiMemorial in Ramadi stands testament to high price paid by 2nd BCT in IraqGIs laid down beats as break from Iraq grindJoe Giordono / S&SSoldiers from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment pause on a bridge overlooking Ramadi to brief their replacements on what they’ve learned after a year in the restive city.

Joe Giordono / S&SFor Ramadi to become a peaceful city, officials said, it will be up to Iraqi soldiers to put down the insurgency. The Iraqi troops, here distributing toys collected by U.S. soldiers, still wear a ragtag collection of uniforms and equipment.

Joe Giordono / S&SA soldier from 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment leads Iraqi troops on a raid of targets in Ramadi in mid-July. U.S. officials have said that Ramadi is a crucial test of whether Iraqi forces can operate on their own to stop the insurgency.

Who’s taking over?

RAMADI, Iraq — So, who’s taking the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division’s place in one of the most hotly contested cities in Iraq? An amalgam of nearly 4,000 National Guard soldiers from 36 states.

The new group is led by the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 2nd Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, though it will fall under the 2nd Marine Division, which has operational command in Anbar province.

Some 2,000 of the soldiers are from Pennsylvania, and the whole unit got a send-off from Gov. Ed Rendell before deploying to Iraq.

“All 4,000-plus of you are liberators,” Rendell told the formation. “Liberators in the sense that what we’re doing in Iraq is to try and bring democracy to people who have been enslaved.”

As the replacements arrived in Ramadi during the last weeks of July, battle-hardened 2nd Infantry Division soldiers took them on “left-seat, right-seat” rides designed to familiarize them with the city in which they’ll spend their next year. It was a quick education.

One of the new soldiers, Spc. Richard Setzer, is a 46-year-old Vermont Guardsman attached to the 28th Infantry Division. He wrote a series of journal entries for his hometown paper, the Bennington Banner.

“They are all very happy to see us,” he wrote of the departing 2nd ID soldiers. “They all look very tired and weary and it didn’t take long to find out why. Mortar attacks happen here three to four times a day with us firing back artillery rounds all day long. Sleeping through this will take some getting used to.”

“So we are safe and sound here and now,” Setzer wrote. “Our clock ’til we return home starts ticking … 360 days and counting. Yes, I actually mark off each day on a calendar made for me by my wife.”

— Joseph Giordono

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