With any move, proper packing is the main thing.
Getting all those boxes perfectly padded and properly marked is a headache-inducing ritual for anyone who has headed for a new home. Now multiply that headache by 4,400 soldiers and more than 2,800 vehicles, containers and trailers. Throw in a few thousand firearms, and make a lot of those vehicles 72-ton tanks. And add an ocean to cross.
"This is something different," Lt. Col. John Gilliam said Tuesday as he watched his troops load vehicles on trains as Fort Carson's 3rd Brigade Combat Team readies for its 9-month deployment to eastern Europe.
Gilliam commands the brigade's 1st Battalion of the 66th Armored Regiment and was sweating the details of the largest Fort Carson deployment to Europe since the Cold War. During the 1980s, the Army regularly sent tens of thousands of soldiers to Germany for huge training exercises, but those deployments ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Army is now working to shore up North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies against rising Russian aggression. The centerpiece of that effort will be the 3rd Brigade, which will be spread across eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea starting in January.
A veteran of six deployments overseas, Gilliam said he has never seen anything like it.
"This is the most unique deployment I have done," he said.
Brigade soldiers have been working since early November to load their gear on trains, including spare parts to repair broken tanks, field kitchens, ambulances and tow trucks.
"It really tests our ability to sustain ourselves," Gilliam said.
The trains are headed to Beaumont, Texas, where the gear will be loaded onto Navy transports bound for Bremerhaven, Germany. There, crews from the brigade will again put their equipment on trains for a trip east to Poland, where the unit will begin its mission and fan out to seven nations.
Gilliam recently returned to Colorado from a scouting mission where he checked out the swath of Europe where the brigade will serve -- Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Germany. Gilliam said the former Warsaw Pact allies are glad for the American show of support.
"They are excited to get us over there and excited to train with us," Gilliam said.
The Fort Carson brigade has spent a year in training to get ready for Europe. In September, they fought a mock war in California to hone their skills. The focus of the California mission and the deployment to Europe centers on the tactics and techniques armored units developed during the Cold War.
Since 2003, the unit has served four tours in Iraq and a deployment to Afghanistan, where its soldiers learned counter-insurgency and traded their tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles for Humvees.
But heavy armored fighting vehicles are back in fashion.
"We're getting back to that core competency," Gilliam said.