‘We’re going to war, bro’: Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne deploys to the Middle East

By Rich McKay

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.

The 82nd’s commander, U.S. Army Major General James Mingus, waded through the sea of camouflage-uniformed men and women as they prepared to leave the base near Fayetteville on Sunday. He shook hands with the troops, wishing them luck.

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.

Trump last week said he ordered the killing to stop a war, not to start one. And despite Tehran’s strident rhetoric, analysts say Iran will want to avoid any conventional conflict with the United States and is likely to focus on asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military action via proxies.

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.


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.”

There was lots of wrestling holds as the troops tossed their 75-pound (34 kg) backpacks onto transport trucks. The packs hold everything from armor-plated vests, extra socks and underwear, to 210 rounds of ammunition for their M4 carbines.

A sergeant pushed through the crowd shouting for anyone with Type O blood, which can be transfused into any patient.

“The medics need you now. Move,” he said, before a handful of troops walked off to give a little less than a pint each.


While members of the unit – considered the most mobile in the U.S. Army – are used to quick deployments, this was different, said Lieutenant Colonel Mike Burns, an Army spokesman.

“The guys are excited to go, but none of us know how long they’ll be gone,” Burns said. “That’s the toughest part.”

Soldiers were ordered not to bring cellphones, portable video games or any other devices that could be used to communicate with friends and family back home, out of concern that details of their movements could leak out.

“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.”

The reality of the deployment wouldn’t sink in until the troops “walk out that door,” he said, pointing to the exit to the tarmac where C-5 and C-17 transport planes and two contract commercial jets waited.

His call came when he was on leave in his hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida, taking his two young daughters to visit relatives and maybe go to Walt Disney World.

“We just got there and I got the call to turn right around and head back to base,” he said. “My wife knows the drill. I had to go. We drove right back.”

On a single order, hundreds of soldiers jumped to their feet. They lined up single file and marched out carrying their guns and kits and helmets, past a volunteer honor guard holding aloft flags that flapped east in the January wind.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Scott Malone, Sonya Hepinstall and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Army vows to fix ‘broken’ housing at Fort Meade in wake of Reuters report

FILE PHOTO: Water damage to the doorway of a Corvias-managed military housing unit is pictured in Fort Meade, Maryland, U.S. October 29, 2018. REUTERS/Andrea Januta/File Photo

By Joshua Schneyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The commander of one of the largest Army bases in the United States promised residents to fix a broken housing system in which maintenance lapses by a private landlord left military families in homes with health and safety hazards.

The garrison commander at Maryland’s Fort Meade made the remarks in meetings with residents this month in response to a Reuters report in December that detailed the problems, which ranged from mold and rodent infestations to flooding, crumbling roofs and ceiling collapses. Many tenants accused the closely held civilian company that runs most housing at Fort Meade, Rhode Island’s Corvias Group, of routinely failing to make repairs.

Based on the Reuters articles, we failed you. I failed you, Colonel Erich C. Spragg, Meade’s garrison commander, told families at a January 11 town hall meeting.

“Why are we here tonight? I’ll tell you why: because this is broken, Spragg said of the Meade housing system, operated by a public-private venture between the Army and Corvias. I’ve got to figure out where it’s broken, and we have to fix it.&rdq

Corvias staff also spoke at the meetings, acknowledging lapses and pledging improvements, according to audio recordings that were shared with Reuters.

Trust is hard to earn back, and we’re going to do what we can to earn that back, JC Calder, Corvias’s operations director at Meade, told residents.

Meade and Corvias promised to overhaul the system for placing repair requests to more swiftly complete fixes. The garrison commander is convening resident focus groups to identify housing lapses.

Owned by real estate developer John Picerne, Corvias operates more than 26,000 family homes across 13 U.S. Army and Air Force bases under the Military Housing Privatization Initiative. It is slated to earn more than $1 billion in fees over 50-year contracts, Reuters found.

Asked about the new promises to Meade residents, Corvias spokeswoman Kelly Douglas said in a statement: Our core mission at Corvias is clear: put service members and their families first. We can do better and will do better, in addressing any resident issues.

She said the company already has a high rate of completing work orders, but to respond to resident issues more quickly, is adding additional maintenance and service staff.

In a statement Wednesday, the Army said it is committed to providing a safe and secure environment on our installations, and said it recently completed visual inspections of 10 percent of family housing units nationwide with children ages six or younger.

The Army began the inspection program last year after Reuters found lead poisoning hazards on several bases.

The results, the Army said, will inform our long-term plan to address issues across the force.

Fort Meade is the site of a major U.S. Army contingent and home to the secretive National Security Agency. Corvias operates around 3,000 family homes on the base.

Last month, Reuters detailed housing concerns at Fort Meade and two other bases where Corvias operates, North Carolina’s Fort Bragg and Louisiana’s Fort Polk, where a subsequent online petition to hold Corvias accountable has gained 5,000 signatures. Corvias said it is reviewing its service request system to better address resident concerns at all bases where it operates.

At the two Meade town hall sessions last week, some families described mold sickening their children, unexplained charges from their landlord, days without heat, and problems that forced them to move in temporarily with neighbors.

Corvias is among more than a dozen private real estate firms housing service families on U.S. bases under the two-decade-old privatization program.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, this month told a local TV station he would press for Senate hearings to explore base housing conditions across the country.

Before Corvias took over Fort Bragg housing in 2003, Reed helped make introductions for Picerne at the Army post and credited his work serving military families. After the Reuters report, Reed said the Senate should review operations of all contractors, including Corvias.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene)