A young lieutenant staged his gear at the Fort Bragg, North Carolina, airfield on Thursday -- awaiting the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft that would take him and his troops to Europe amid one of the first major faceoffs between the U.S. and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is his first deployment, and it came with virtually no notice.
"It's excited nervousness," he said. "My grandfather was in the 82nd; my dad was also at Bragg for a while. So this means a lot that I can be here. My dad reached out and said congratulations."
Military.com was granted access to the soldiers deploying to Europe, on the condition they not be named. Troops shuffled into the airfield's staging area, where they ate breakfast; grabbed water and Meals, Ready-to-Eat; and boarded a plane to cross the Atlantic with no clear schedule for when they will return home.
The first wave of some 2,000 U.S. troops to beef up NATO's warfighting capacity in eastern Europe deployed from Fort Bragg, tasked with deterring any plans Russian President Vladimir Putin might have to conquer Ukraine using the 130,000-strong force he's amassed in surrounding countries.
Paratroopers departed on a C-17 around noon Thursday. Troops were placed on heightened alert last week by the Biden administration and told to prepare to rapidly deploy as Russia has built up forces near several countries' borders with Ukraine. Russia has demanded that Ukraine be barred from ever joining NATO.
Troops from Fort Bragg are set to deploy to Germany and Poland, far from the front lines of Ukraine -- and the danger from any initial blitz by Russian troops.
Another 8,500 troops are still on a so-called heightened alert, including those with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The alert order also included units at bases in Arizona, Texas, Washington state, Louisiana, Georgia and Ohio.
Many of the Bragg troops are part of the Army's Immediate Response Force -- a rotating contingent of service members who are permanently on standby and serve as America's 911 emergency responders. The goal is to be able to deploy within about 18 hours. That responsibility and heightened readiness shifts between units at Bragg about every six months. In practice, this means soldiers have to have their bags packed, weapons prepped and all their personal affairs in order to respond anywhere in the world with little warning.
"This is what being in the 82nd is all about, being the face of the nation. So we take it very seriously; it's a humbling experience when the nation calls and you need to perform your best," an infantry captain, and Afghanistan war veteran, told Military.com. "It's an incredible opportunity to be here."
Most of the Bragg assets being deployed consist of administrative personnel and ground combat units -- no heavy armored vehicles or attack aircraft. The deployment is relatively small compared to the force Russia has built up on the Ukrainian border -- one that could bring cataclysmic conflict.
"The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our NATO allies," Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said at a media briefing Wednesday. "The current situation demands that we reinforce the deterrent and defensive posture on NATO's eastern flank."
There are currently no plans to bolster Ukraine's front lines with U.S. troops. Roughy 150 Florida National Guard troops from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat team are in Ukraine on a training mission. However, those Guardsmen are on the other side of the country, far from Russian forces -- which include tanks, artillery and warships.
Meanwhile, more troops at Fort Bragg are gearing up and staging at the base's airfield for flights expected to continue throughout the week.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.