This story was first published in the Fayetteville Observer.

FORT BRAGG — A first wave of soldiers boarded C-17s at Fort Bragg on Thursday, as paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division and soldiers part of the XVIII Airborne Corps deployed to Europe.

The troops are going in support of NATO allies and partners in “deterring Russian aggression,” said Capt. Matthew Visser, a spokesman for the XVIII Airborne Corps.

“The soldiers of XVIII Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division are always ready as America’s contingency corps (and) have the responsibility to mobilize on a moment’s notice to deploy supporting whatever operation it is,” Visser said.

About 1,700 paratroopers who are part of an infantry brigade combat team will go to Poland, as the XVIII Airborne Corps moves a joint task force headquarters to Germany.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that the troops are deploying to bolster capabilities inside NATO’s eastern flank. after Russian President Vladimir Putin has massed troops on Ukraine’s border for months, raising concerns of an imminent incursion or full-scale invasion.

The Pentagon estimates there are more than 100,000 Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.

President Joe Biden has “been clear, that the U.S. will respond to the growing threat,” Kirby said.

Kirby said Wednesday that U.S. officials don’t know if Russia has made a final decision to further invade the Ukraine, but Putin continues to add more forces to the western part of his country and Belarus.

“We’re going to be prepared to defend our NATO allies if it comes to that,” Kirby said. “Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”

Visser said paratroopers in the division and soldiers in the Corps prepare for different operations, which have included deployments in recent years to Haiti or Kabul, Afghanistan for a noncombatant evacuation operation in August.

He said the deployment to Europe communicates a message that’s connected to the units’ lineage during World War II in Normandy, Bastogne and Luxembourg.

“This is why people choose to come to Fort Bragg … It’s the most ready, and when you come to Fort Bragg, it’s no surprise that this could be the scenario that you’re in — that you get to deploy and that you get to support what the country needs,” Visser said.

Lt. Col. Brad Jordan is among those deploying soldiers, He’s been in the Army for 20 years with previous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said that there are a lot of unknowns but that the Fort Bragg soldiers are ready to join forces with allied partners if the NATO response force requires that coordination.

“I know that sounds new for a lot of people, but it doesn’t really go away, so that continued working with our NATO allies has not stopped,” Jordan said.

Jordan said he is confident with the training the soldiers have received.

Personally, he said, this will not be the first deployment that his 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter have gone through to experience him being gone.

But he’s left them with something while he’s gone.

“Each one of my kids have half of a dog tag,” Jordan said. “I have the other half. It just reminds them that I’m there.”

Visser said families that remain on the home front will be supported by a variety of Army Community Services and Fort Bragg readiness groups.

Visser said it is not known how long the mission will last.

From the moment they stepped into the Green Ramp passenger shed on Thursday, troops were briefed by leaders and had the chance to participate in a benediction.

“We want to make sure that every soldier that leaves this airfield, that gets onto an aircraft, understands what their mission is, know that they’re supported by the soldiers to the left and to the right, and know that their leadership is here to take care of them to make sure that they get back safe,” Visser said.

Soldiers also had support from veteran and military service organizations.

Roland Rochester, a Marine veteran and national recruiter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he’s been shaking hands with Fort Bragg troops that have deployed and redeployed since 2002.

“I tell them to be safe,” Rochester said.

The USO of North Carolina was also on site to hand out food and personal care kits consisting of toothpaste, shaving cream and other toiletries.

“When the paratroopers and the soldiers are prepared to deploy, the USO is right there with them,” said Barry Morris, a regional communications manager for the USO. “Our mission is strengthening America’s service members by keeping them connected (to) family, home, country.”

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