A small group of 82nd Airborne Division soldiers left Fort Bragg on Sunday, bound for Afghanistan.
The soldiers, part of the 18th Human Resources Company, will oversee postal operations as part of the NATO mission in the country, helping to distribute letters and packages to the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops serving there.
That mission, while directly tied to soldier moral and resiliency, will keep them largely behind the scenes, officials said.
But on Provider Field outside the 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade headquarters, the deploying troops took center stage.
While just two dozen paratroopers from the company's 4th Platoon deployed over the weekend, nearly 150 friends and family turned out to bid them goodbye and good luck.
The outpouring of support was unexpected, but not entirely surprising, according to officials.
"We've only got one tent," the company commander, Capt. Tim Konze said. "We obviously weren't expecting this. But it's encouraging. It makes it easier on the soldiers -- knowing you have that support definitely helps."
Spc. Vicente Colon, one of the deploying soldiers, said the unit couldn't have asked for more support.
"It's great," he said.
But while holding his 1-year-old daughter, Aurora, and between posing for photographs with family and friends, Colon said that despite wanting to start the mission, soldiers were sad to leave their families behind.
"It's just mixed emotions," he said.
Col. Gavin J. Gardner, the 82nd Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade commander, said the support on display for the deploying troops was uplifting.
And Lt. Col. David Vandevander, commander of the 82nd Special Troops Battalion, said those there to see the soldiers off were the strength behind them.
Highly trained unit
Vandevander, speaking during a brief ceremony to mark the start of the nine-month deployment, said those leaving Fort Bragg for Afghanistan were "well-prepared, combat-ready paratroopers."
He said they lived by high standards, and had trained thoroughly for the mission over the last roughly seven months.
"The paratroopers before you are confident in their training, confident in their leadership and confident in each other," the lieutenant colonel said.
Gardner, who addressed the soldiers in formation before the ceremony began, agreed.
Calling them the "most highly trained postal unit ever deployed," the colonel said that he trusted the soldiers were ready for their mission, and encouraged them to live up to the "All American" patch of the 82nd Airborne Division.
"Emulate all the great things that this division stands for," he said.
The 18th Human Resources Company will be the only 82nd Airborne troops in Afghanistan, and soon will be the only unit from the division deployed.
The division headquarters, led by Maj. Gen. Richard D. Clarke, is expected to return from Iraq later this week.
Officials had hoped to have the entire division home at one time for the first time since 2013, but Gardner said that wasn't possible and noted that other paratroopers would eventually join them on overseas missions.
That includes a smaller group of soldiers from the same company, which will deploy to Egypt to serve as part of Task Force Sinai.
The deploying paratroopers left Fort Bragg by bus about noon on Sunday, destined for Baltimore where they will catch a flight overseas.
In Afghanistan, they will be dispersed across the country, working in small teams to sort and process mail and traveling to small bases across the war zone to deliver mail.
Vandevander said the soldiers would fill a vitally important mission.
"There's simply no better feeling than getting that care package from home," he said.
The company commander, Konze, said the soldiers would be ready to ensure those packages made their way to troops on the front lines.
But he also asked those supporting the soldiers to keep the unit in their thoughts.
"Send letters, too," Konze said. "It would mean the world to all of us."