FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - Spc. Chris Allen grabbed his 17-month-old son, Colson, hugged his wife, Kristin, and celebrated returning to Fort Campbell on Wednesday after six months in Afghanistan. But an undercurrent of sadness filtered through the joy of the moment: The end of the six-month deployment for Allen and about 140 other soldiers with the fabled "Band of Brothers" brigade also augured the end of their days together as a unit.
"It sucks," Allen, of Lockhart, Texas, told The Associated Press. "I don't want to go to a different unit."
The 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, also known as the Currahees, is one of 10 brigade combat teams that the Army will shut down between now and 2015.
The Army announced Monday that the shutdown process for those teams would speed up, with budget cuts forcing the military to decommission units by 2015 instead of 2017 as originally planned.
The inactivation of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, which became famous in a book by historian Stephen Ambrose and a subsequent HBO miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, is set to take place in the spring, but no official date has been set.
The Army plans to reduce the size of its fighting force from a high of about 570,000 at the peak of the Iraq war to 490,000 - a reflection of budget cuts and of the country's current military needs as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end.
Family members waved homemade signs and screamed out as the soldiers stepped off the plane. Once inside a nearby hangar, joyful reunions were everywhere. Hands were held, kisses exchanged, children who had learned to walk or talk while their fathers and mothers were overseas drank in the adults they hadn't seen in a quarter to half their lifetimes.
Dee Dee Brinkley, of San Diego, Calif., wore a button picturing her son, Spc. Eric Brinkley, who worked on unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan. Eric Brinkley initially intended to join the Marines, but was turned down because of the tattoos on his arms. Instead, he joined the Army, a move his mother sees as working out well because it kept him on an airfield and out of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.
"We still worried," Dee Dee Brinkley said. "But he was in the middle of the airfield most of the time, so we could worry a little less."
Fort Campbell spokesman Bob Jenkins said the reorganization will affect about 3,500 soldiers and their families. Of that group, about 320 soldiers will be reassigned somewhere other than Fort Campbell while the rest will get new positions elsewhere at the sprawling military post on the Kentucky-Tennessee state line, Jenkins said.
"This is a pretty big thing because it's part of the `Band of Brothers,'" Jenkins said. "In some cases, it will help commanders better complete their missions."
Spc. Gil Barreto of Puerto Rico knows the history of his unit. While he's glad to be home, he'll hate to see the 4th Brigade Combat Team disappear.
"It's sad," said Barreto, who played with his 18-month-old son of the same name. "Our brigade has a history, so this is going to be a loss."
The brigade traces its lineage to the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, created in 1942, at Camp Toccoa, Ga.
The 506th was among several parachute regiments created to sneak behind enemy lines in the war. Nicknamed "Currahee," which is a Native American Cherokee term for "stands alone," the regiment parachuted into Normandy during the D-Day invasion in 1944 and then later parachuted into Holland. The regiment raced to liberate Europe amid bouts of fierce fighting in Bastogne, Belgium, and then overran Hitler's famed "Eagle's Nest" in Germany.
Ambrose's book came out in 1992, igniting public interest in the regiment. The HBO miniseries about the men of Easy Company won national acclaim, and followed the soldiers from paratrooper training through D-Day and the end of the war.