'We're going to war, bro': Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne deploys to the Middle East (By Rich McKay)
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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) - For many of the soldiers, it would be their first mission. They packed up ammunition and rifles, placed last-minute calls to loved ones, then turned in their cellphones. Some gave blood.
The 600 mostly young soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, were headed for the Middle East, part of a group of some 3,500 U.S. paratroopers ordered to the region. Kuwait is the first stop for many. Their final destinations are classified.
"We're going to war, bro," one cheered, holding two thumbs up and sporting a grin under close-shorn red hair. He stood among dozens of soldiers loading trucks outside a cinder-block building housing several auditoriums with long benches and tables.
Days after President Donald Trump ordered the drone killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, raising fears of fresh conflict in the Middle East, the men and women of the U.S. Army's storied 82nd Airborne Division are moving out in the largest "fast deployment" since the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
One soldier from Ashboro, Virginia, said he wasn't surprised when the order came.
"I was just watching the news, seeing how things were going over there," said the 27-year-old, one of several soldiers Reuters was allowed to interview on condition they not be named. "Then I got a text message from my sergeant saying 'Don't go anywhere.' And that was it."
While the killing of Soleimani has ratcheted up tensions between the United States and Iran, it remains to be seen whether they will escalate to full-out conflict.
Risks seemed to be pushed to the back of the minds of the younger soldiers, though many packed the base chapel after a breakfast of eggs, waffles, oatmeal, sausages and 1,000 doughnuts.
One private took a strap tethered to a transport truck and tried to hitch it to the belt of an unwitting friend, a last prank before shipping out.
'THIS IS THE MISSION'
The older soldiers, in their 30s and 40s, were visibly more somber, having the experience of seeing comrades come home from past deployments learning to walk on one leg or in flag-draped coffins.
"This is the mission, man," said Brian Knight, a retired Army veteran who has been on five combat deployments to the Middle East. He is the current director of a chapter of the United Service Organizations military support charity.
"They're answering America's 911 call," Knight said. "They're stoked to go. The president called for the 82nd."
"We're an infantry brigade," Burns said. "Our primary mission is ground fighting. This is as real as it gets."
A sergeant started rattling off last names, checking them off from a list after "heres" and "yups" and "yos."
For every fighter, there were seven support crew members shipping out: cooks, aviators, mechanics, medics, chaplains, and transportation and supply managers. All but the chaplains would carry guns to fight.
A 34-year-old senior master sergeant said: "The Army is an all-volunteer force. We want to do this. You pay your taxes and we get to do this."
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