1,000 paratroopers from 82nd Airborne headed to Iraq this week
By AMANDA DOLASINSKI | The Fayetteville Observer (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 25, 2015
The 82nd Airborne, and more specifically its 3rd Brigade Combat Team, are no strangers to Iraq.
Since 2003, parts of the brigade have deployed in support of U.S. efforts there on at least three occasions.
Now, more than three years after the U.S. military presence in Iraq was thought over, about a quarter of the Panther Brigade will return with a new mission to help train Iraqi forces to fight the Islamic State.
About 1,000 paratroopers from the brigade will deploy this week as part of the Operation Inherent Resolve mission.
The deployment was officially announced in December and is expected to last nine months.
As his paratroopers prepared for the mission, the brigade commander, Col. Curtis A. Buzzard, has watched tensions boil in the Middle East - and Iraq in particular - as forces have fought against the Islamic State group, also known by the acronym DAESH based on the group's Arabic name, ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wash-Sham.
"We've seen the impact of DAESH over the last year and a half, not just on Iraq, but on the region," Buzzard said. "It's clearly an existential threat.
"It's an absolutely brutal element that has impacts all across the region and instability in the region and you can see that clearly in Syria, Iraq, potentially Libya and Yemen," he said. "The world can't stand by and watch."
Starting this week, Buzzard's troops are done watching.
They'll join about 250 paratroopers from the brigade already deployed to provide security to U.S. personnel.
But these latest troops will instead advise and assist Iraqi forces with the planning and execution of the counter offensive against the Islamic State.
Pivotal for Iraq
Buzzard said his troops are ready.
They share the 82nd Airborne's mindset that its soldiers could be sent anywhere at anytime and the deployment comes just a few months after the brigade finished its rotation on the nation's Global Response Force, a quick-reaction force of sorts that stands ready to deploy at any time for humanitarian or combat operations.
"As the situation in Iraq has evolved, I think we all recognized at some point we might be in a position to help advise them," he said. "As part of the GRF, we're prepared to go anywhere globally. Iraq has been out there as a potential."
The 1,000 paratroopers were be working at a site near the Iraq capital of Baghdad, Buzzard said.
According to the Department of Defense, there are four training sites for Iraqi forces, all at familiar sites for soldiers who deployed in years past to support Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation New Dawn.
The sites include Al Asad, Bismaya, Camp Taji and Irbil, according to the Pentagon. The last, Irbil, opened on Friday and eventually the sites will be able to train 12 brigades at one time.
The Iraqi forces have been receptive to the training, Buzzard said.
He said American forces already in the country have told him the Iraqis want to be successful on their own.
They want to reestablish their credibility, he said.
"They absolutely recognize this is important to their country's future and they're dedicated to the mission," Buzzard said. "There's a level of energy that's there, too, among senior Iraqi leadership."
Buzzard said his troops won't reinvent the wheel in Iraq. They won't dictate how the Iraqis will operate, but will instead try to work within systems and practices already in place.
"We'll have to figure out how to adapt to their history of an army and apply our best practices to that in a way that's not, you know, we're not going in and trying to mirror image the American Army," he said.
More than air strikes
Now, as the Panther Brigade again heads for Iraq, other U.S. forces have been busily working to affect Islamic State's ability to operate in other ways.
The U.S. has been involved in numerous air strikes aimed at destroying Islamic State targets, according to military officials.
Last week, U.S. and coalition forces conducted dozens of strikes in Syria and Iraq, destroying buildings, a weapons manufacturing facility, vehicles and bunkers in Iraq and multiple tactical units, a trailer and an oil drilling rig in Syria.
But officials have said air strikes alone won't be enough to turn back Islamic State.
"It's a sophisticated enemy," Buzzard said. "There's limits to what air power can do.
"I think it's been very effective so far targeting leadership and headquarters, but it will require a ground force to control the terrain," he said. "The Iraqis have that ground force."
In preparing for the deployment, the paratroopers took part in a five-day training exercise last week that included Iraqi-Americans - including some former Iraqi soldiers - who now work for the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
The training, which occurred on Fort Bragg, served as a refresher for soldiers who will soon be asked with teaching their Iraqi counterparts about command systems and basic soldier skills.
It also added a level of authenticity that is hard to recreate, Buzzard said.
"They do a great job modeling the scenarios to replicate what we'll see overseas," he said. "It adds to the realism, particularly having to use a linguist. That's a challenging thing in and of itself in terms of how long you speak before they translate, their ability to communicate your intent."
Taking back from the Islamic State
For many of the paratroopers who will deploy, it will not only be a familiar mission, it will be a personal one.
Soldiers said they remember seeing progress in Iraq on previous deployments.
Their latest mission will be, in part, to help the Iraqi forces retake the gains that have been stunted or reversed by the Islamic State.
Staff Sgt. Patrick Neal served in Iraq for 15 months as part of the surge of U.S. forces in 2006.
At that time, Neal was part of the surge. His unit was supporting Marines in Karmah, just outside of Baghdad, which was considered one of the most violent cities in the country at the time, even for Iraqi citizens.
Snipers and IEDs were constant threats, Neal said.
But he also began to see markets open and people wander the streets.
"It took awhile, it was hard fought, but we were able to start to secure that town," he said. "It became a much safer town to be in. More people were able to get out and do stuff and not worry about being killed just going to get food for their family to eat."
Now Neal said he is looking forward to training the Iraqi army and helping degrade the Islamic State and again improve the quality of life for the people of Iraq.
"I want to enable the Iraqis to take care of their nation," he said. "That's what I believe that we should focus our energies on; helping them to help themselves. If we go over there and do it for them, we'll end up staying there much longer than we hope for."
Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Severino has similar memories from his 12 months in Iraq in 2008.
"The area that we were responsible for, yes, I saw progress," he said. "Iraq seemed like a more competent force."
When Severino first deployed, he said their were walls protecting markets.
As American troops secured the cities, those walls came down.
"It was huge to me when they said, 'We don't need it,'" Severino said. "To me, it was a positive sign."
Neal and Severino are both experienced soldiers.
Neal has four deployments under his belt, including two in Afghanistan and one in Kuwait.
Meanwhile, Severino is one of only a few soldiers to have undertaken a combat jump in Afghanistan. He was part of a group of about 70 82nd Airborne paratroopers to jump into Afghanistan in 2003, the division's first combat jump since Panama in 1989.
Now, the pair are ready to get back into the action.
"Everybody's motivated to go," Neal said. "3rd Brigade has been itching for a deployment for awhile now. We finally get the chance. Of all the chances we get, we get the deployment the entire country's looking at right now."
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