Last “Devils in baggy pants” return from Afghanistan
The last major movement of Fort Bragg paratroopers deployed to Afghanistan’s contentious Ghazni province were welcomed home and a reintegration process honed by over a decade of war.
Lt. Col. Phillip Sounia, commander of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division’s Rear, or “Ready” Detachment, said that the reintegration process is simply an extension of the Ready Detachment credo: make sure there is nothing for deployed troops to worry about back home.
“We try to get people to their Families within two hours,” said Sounia. “We make sure Soldiers are received, fed, clothed, thanked for their service, and are assured they are supported.”
Sounia said that he came to 1st Bn., 82nd Abn. Div. during his last deployment, so that when he returned “home” to Fort Bragg, he didn’t know where anything was. That can be a daunting situation, especially for younger troopers who arrive at a unit just before, or during a deployment as he did, he said.
“Part of our job is to teach those new Soldiers what they need to know to live well here in the Fayetteville/Fort Bragg area,” he said.
It’s also important for returning paratroopers to understand that they have written themselves into the history of their storied unit, the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (of the 1st Brigade Combat Team), he added.
“I don’t think they get told that enough,” said Sounia, who personally thanked over 2,500 paratroopers debarking from two-dozen flights arriving at Pope Army Airfield over the last six weeks.
Col. Mark L. Stock, the brigade commander, agreed. “Thirty, forty, fifty years from now, people are going to look back on their accomplishments the same way we look back on those heroes of World War II,” said Stock, who arrived with the brigade colors Sept. 9.
Stock added that many of the unsung heroes of the fight were those who supported the brigade as part of the Ready Detachment.
“They are the ones who took care of our Families, who made sure we had troopers trained and sent forward, and right now, they are playing a critical role in reintegrating the brigade,” he said.
Stock said that he and Command Sgt. Maj. Joey Love continually remind their paratroopers that the fight is not over just because they left the battlefield. Some of the most challenging and dangerous days are the first few months back home.
“It takes an entire team to make sure that Soldiers are reintegrated properly with their Families, with their units and set on the right track to be a part of this great unit back here in garrison,” he said.
Over the past four months, the 1st Bn., 82nd Abn. Div., Devils in Baggy Pants, conducted nearly 3,500 patrols, killed or captured 400 enemy combatants, found nearly 200 roadside bombs and weapons caches and engaged the enemy over 170 times, according to Sounia.
Now their mission is to return to their Families and refocus on life before the next force regeneration cycle begins, he said.
“They’ve been in combat in one of the most difficult areas of the world, doing something that less than one percent of the population signed up to do,” he said
According to Sgt. 1st Class Edgar Rodriguez, the noncommissioned officer in charge of redeployment activities for 1st Bn., 82nd Abn. Div., a team of about 60 paratroopers were intimately involved with each inbound flight of between 100 to 300 redeploying personnel.
The challenge was to coordinate transportation, baggage, room and board allocation and a safety brief efficiently enough to reunite returning Soldiers with their Families within two hours of touching down. That took about eight hours per flight, he said.
“Based on the comments we’ve received, I’m very pleased with the results,” said Rodriguez, who has deployed three times himself.
Invited by the leadership of the XVIII Airborne Corps, each flight of paratroopers is honored by a group of veteran and citizen motorcycle enthusiasts called the Patriot Guard Riders bearing tributes of flags at Pope Field’s passenger terminal.
The group holds no meetings, collects no dues, brings their own flags and never shows up uninvited, said Frank Schrone, a veteran and spokesman for the riders.
Schrone said that he remembers well the days when nobody was there to greet returning warriors when they got off the plane. “The best part is giving something back,” he said.
Roland Rochester, a state representative for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, also tries not to miss a flight.
Retired since the mid-1980s, Rochester joins generals and other dignitaries planeside to shake the hand and thank each Soldier as they step off the plane.
“It’s important that they hear how we appreciate what they’ve done,” said Rochester.
“It may be the most important thing, because you have to remember, not everybody’s got Family that’s going to be here to meet them.”
The report serves as an update to the Army Red Book published in 2010, that summarizes the progress made enhancing the health, discipline and readiness of the force.