82nd Airborne soldiers who rapidly deployed to Middle East in January return to Fort Bragg
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 20, 2020
WASHINGTON — Some 800 soldiers from an 82nd Airborne Division brigade that rapidly deployed into the Middle East early this year amid heightening tensions with Iran returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., on Thursday, Army officials said.
The soldiers were the first group of some 3,000 paratroopers with the 82nd’s 1st Brigade Combat Team rushed to Kuwait during the first week of January to bolster security for U.S. troops in the region after an American airstrike killed Iran’s most powerful general. Army officials described the deployment that required soldiers to leave within hours as the “most significant no notice deployment of combat forces” in three decades.
Fort Bragg officials said the 800 paratroopers welcomed home Thursday were greeted by family and friends at the Army post. Most of the returning soldiers were from the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, which was the first element to deploy.
That battalion deployed within 18 hours of receiving orders to the Middle East, Pentagon officials have said. The 82nd Airborne’s 1st Brigade Combat Team is now assigned as the U.S. military’s Immediate Response Force Brigade, a designation which makes the unit responsible for responding to any emergencies across the globe. Army officials have long stressed the rapid deployment capability is important to maintain, though rarely used. The last time was in 2010, when soldiers quickly deployed to Haiti following a devastating earthquake.
“As the centerpiece of the nation’s Immediate Response Force, it’s critical that 1st Brigade and the 82nd Airborne Division are able to project global force employment,” Col. Andrew Saslav, the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, said in a prepared statement. “Working across combatant commands not only demonstrates the flexibility and expeditionary capability of our airborne forces, but also better prepares our paratroopers for the complexity of the modern global security environment.”
Some soldiers with the brigade’s 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, its 3rd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, and other support soldiers also returned to Fort Bragg on Thursday, the division said in a statement. The remainder of the brigade’s about 3,000 troops remained in the Middle East as of Thursday, officials said. It was not clear how long they would remain deployed.
Much of the brigade has remained in Kuwait throughout its deployment, however some members of the unit have operated in Iraq, including in Baghdad where they were assigned to bolster security at the U.S. Embassy, according to U.S. Central Command officials.
The brigade was tapped for the quick deployment within hours of the Jan. 3 airstrike in Baghdad that killed Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who commanded the elite Quds Force, which has trained and directed Tehran’s proxy forces across the Middle East. Other military elements, including a small special operations task force of mostly Army Rangers, also were quickly moved into the region to prepare for expected retaliation from Tehran.
Iran’s response came Jan. 8, when it launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at Iraq’s al Asad Air Base, which hosts some 1,000 American troops. More than 100 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injuries in the attack. But President Donald Trump did not retaliate militarily, keeping the tensions from rising further.
Lt. Col. Scott McKay, the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, said his unit spent most of the deployment conducting training, in case it was needed to respond to issues throughout the Middle East.
McKay’s unit will now prepare for a major training operation this spring, known as Exercise Swift Response 20, in Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. The exercise is meant to test the ability of U.S. and NATO forces to quickly respond to a situation in Europe. The exercise will also include troops from Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom.
Unlike the rapid deployment to Kuwait, the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment will parachute into Swift Response, a unit spokesman said Thursday.