FORT CARSON, Colo .– A tense line of soldiers crossed the sprawling army post parade ground in the afternoon, hoisting flags draped in a rainbow of banners from past deployments: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Germany, France, Civil War battles and even skirmishes with Plains tribes on horseback.

“Current colors! Cried a sergeant. The soldiers turned and waved the flags towards their Colonel Commandant, who stepped forward and carefully wrapped each in camouflage sleeves.

At this precise time – 1:29 p.m. MT, August 30 – the last American military plane took off from Kabul airport in Afghanistan.

American flags across the country had been lowered to their mid-length to honor 13 American soldiers who were killed there by a suicide bomber. And at the front door of Fort Carson, a group of women displayed 13 pairs of boots and 13 cold Bud Lights as a memorial.

But the ceremony on the parade ground did not mark the end of the US war in Afghanistan. The First Stryker Brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division wrapped their flags to mark the start of their last deployment. He was going back to Iraq.

While the mission may have faded from public attention, the United States still has its boots on the ground in the other nation it invaded in the aftermath of 9/11. About 2,500 US troops are now in Iraq, the embers of what was once a scorching and confrontational war, now carefully dispersed to protect a few strategic bases. Over the next nine months, around 2,000 soldiers from the First Brigade will take on much of this task.

The deployment is the latest in a long line for the unit, whose ranks are now largely made up of soldiers who were toddlers when the United States invaded. In their view, the war abroad is not a finite and momentous event, but rather an ongoing reality – a task that will likely always need volunteers.

The brigade’s first deployment to Iraq in 2003 resulted in the capture of the country’s fugitive dictator, Saddam Hussein, whom soldiers extracted from a spider hole in a small village. The troops returned home with a noisy welcome, with 70,000 in attendance and tributes from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Jessica Simpson.

But the initial victory in Iraq did not lead to peace. The brigade returned to Iraq in 2006 and again in 2008. Dozens of brigade soldiers were killed as the country collapsed. The fervor of the initial invasion faded even as the brigade continued to deploy, including tours to Afghanistan and Kuwait.

As the platoons of the First Brigade boarded military jets again in 2021, there were no banners along the route, no groups playing. Only a few dozen family members and an excited orbit of children and dogs showed up for a moderate farewell.

But as the young troops crowded into the planes, departing from a war-weary nation, many of their faces sparkled with excitement. They crossed the line of flight, proud that it is time for them to stand guard. The fate of a nation, whose withdrawal from Afghanistan has shown that it can only depend on a few thousand troops, will now rest in part on them.

Here is a more detailed look at six of the deployed soldiers.

Brigade Commander, 43
Atlanta

Colonel Steadman was a lieutenant fresh out of college when the World Trade Center was attacked in 2001, and he soon found himself leading a parachute platoon in Afghanistan. He has seen little rest since.

He commanded a company in Iraq during the 2007 troop influx to quell growing unrest. Then he led a battalion home. He made a stint in the White House in uniform, always keeping a few steps behind President Obama, carrying a briefcase full of launch codes known as nuclear football. Now he commands a brigade combat team.

Two decades of war defined his life. So he was surprised a few weeks ago when his 10-year-old daughter asked him, “What is Afghanistan? Why are they fighting there?

“It made me quit,” he said. “I realized that there were still so many young people learning about the world.

“A lot of my soldiers are like that too. They are young enough not to know why we are there, why we have been there. Part of my job is to teach them.

Chaplain, 42 years old
Salem, Ore.

The brigade chaplain did not start out as a chaplain. He started out as a little soldier who enlisted in 2002, when he and his wife had a baby on the way and Congress voted to approve the use of force in Iraq. He was deployed to Iraq while his first child was still in hospital. Now he has four.

The intensity of his first deployment in 2003, he said, forced him to seek direction and community in his Christian faith. After seeing how faith had helped him and other soldiers at war, he knew he wanted to become a chaplain.

He has seen the army change over the years, from a force focused on rapid victory to a belted force for long, fierce battles. Meanwhile, a social service garden has sprung up around the fighters to give them a better chance at living happy family lives, stable finances, and healthy lifestyles that can support them.

“One thing is certain, after all this time the military has learned to wage war,” Colonel Mason said. “We learned how to support the soldiers, how to develop their strength not only physically, but also through spiritual practices and supportive relationships. We know that soldiers cannot deploy if they do not have the support of their loved ones at home.

Intelligence platoon leader, 24
Okoboji, Iowa

Calm, confident, with a blonde ponytail sticking out of his patrol cap, Lt. Albright lifted his backpack and told the 20 soldiers in his intelligence platoon to line up and deploy.

She graduated from Iowa State University summa cum laude in 2018 with a degree in animal science, but instead of becoming a veterinarian, she decided that she needed, like her father and brother, to join the military and to try to give back to his nation. .

In her backpack was a book of meditations on how Christians can find pleasure in homework and joy in purpose. “This is how I was raised, and you feel an obligation to others,” she said. “I feel called to serve.

The peloton she leads is mainly made up of men. Only about 15 percent of the military are women – a proportion that has barely budged since 2001, even though all combat jobs are now open to women. But the story is different among young officers: around a third of all first lieutenants are now women, suggesting that the leadership of the army in the future may look a lot more like Lieutenant Albright.

Being a woman in uniform “isn’t a big deal,” she said. “I only received support, from people who push me to be successful.”

His great-grandfather was in the army. His grandfather too. So did his father, who returned from Operation Desert Storm shortly before he was born. So Sergeant Blomer never had many questions about what he would do for a living.

As the soldiers of the First Brigade prepared to fly to Iraq, some filled their backpacks with good luck charms, extra pillows and blankets or books for the college courses they were taking during their deployment.

Not Sergeant Blomer. He is not looking for comfort, distraction, or an exit plan. He said he planned to pursue a career in the military. He enlisted nine years ago and has already deployed once, to Egypt for the peacekeeping mission in Sinai.

The day before his deployment to Iraq, he went out with some army buddies to celebrate with a big steak. He welcomed the idea of ​​serving where there was a chance for action and some danger.

“That’s what I signed up for,” he said. “I love the army. It’s funny.”

Medical logistics, 31
Dallas

Prior to being an officer in a medical logistics team, Lt. Tran was an enlisted military police officer, then drill sergeant. She has seen the army everywhere and has served in Iraq and Afghanistan before.

She is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who fled the fall of Saigon in 1975. Her father fought alongside the Americans. Her mother fled by boat. They never really talked about this war at home, and she never really asked. Her parents weren’t very happy when she enlisted.

Why is his brigade being sent to Iraq now, 10 years after the official end of US combat operations there? This is exactly how it is, she said, pointing out that American soldiers are still deployed in South Korea and Germany, where the fighting stopped generations ago. Whatever the location or the mission, his work remains the same.

“It’s just part of our job,” she said. “We go where the nation needs us.

Cavalry scout, 22
Huntsville, Alabama.

Carlos Pabon entered a recruiting post on September 11, 2020 to sign his enrollment papers, oblivious to the importance of the date. He completed his training just weeks before learning he would be deployed to Iraq.

Private Pabon wears the 4th Infantry Division crest on his left sleeve. Like the majority of the brigade, his right sleeve is bare. This location is reserved for a combat patch for troops that have deployed to a conflict zone. He will get his own when he returns to Fort Carson.

“We are delighted,” he said as he waited to board a plane at a military terminal near Fort Carson. “A lot of the guys who weren’t given the chance to deploy would like to.”

When asked if he was concerned about deploying to a country where many Americans felt American troops should never have been sent in the first place, he shook his head. He pointed to a poster-sized photo hanging on the terminal wall, showing a soldier kneeling to shake hands with a smiling Iraqi boy.

“See in this photo?” ” he said. “The boy has a satchel. That’s why I don’t mind going there. I want to make sure these kids continue to have these opportunities.

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