Hundreds of 82nd Airborne Div. soldiers deploy to South Korea
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — More than 300 82nd Airborne Division soldiers gathered in a hangar on Simmons Army Airfield early Friday to bid their family and friends farewell.
For the next nine months, the soldiers – of the 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade – will serve in South Korea, partnering with allies there and serving as part of a deterrent against North Korea's aggression on the peninsula.
When they take over their mission in Korea, the squadron will become the Army's last OH-58D Kiowa Warrior squadron.
Already, the unit has handed over its 30-plus helicopters that had been based at Fort Bragg, following a mass flight over the installation and downtown Fayetteville in April.
The deployment is the latest "last" for the squadron, said the commander, Lt. Col. Adam Frederick.
The unit also was the last to fly the helicopters in Afghanistan and the last to fly en masse in the U.S.
Now, they'll be the last Kiowa squadron, period, and the last unit of its kind to participate in a Korea rotation that began in 2013.
Frederick said soldiers have been hearing about "lasts" for more than a year, and the importance of those milestones has not been lost of the troops.
"It's not just the last time in this unit, it's the last time in the Army," he said. "This will be the last OH-58D unit in the Army."
Speaking to his soldiers before their last few goodbyes, Frederick said the unit was truly "one of a kind."
"You're part of this. Be proud of that," he said. "I could not be more proud of you guys for what we're about to do."
Soldiers and their families met at the hangar on Simmons at 3 a.m. to start the process of saying goodbye.
Some young children wore pajamas. Others napped in folding chairs as their parents spent time together.
Spc. Michael Sandoval spent the time with his new wife, Leah. The pair were married fewer than three weeks ago, and on Friday still acted very much like newlyweds.
They held hands and traded smiles, repeatedly poking each other.
Sandoval said he has deployed before, but this time would be very different.
"It's a bit tough," he said. "I'm definitely going to miss her."
"We'll be in touch," Leah promised.
While family members spent a final two hours with their soldiers, the troops dropped of their bags and checked in ahead of their flight later in the morning.
Among them were Pfc. Tyrus Brown, his wife, Bailey, and 8-month-old daughter, Stevie.
Brown said it's been difficult preparing for the deployment, knowing he will miss milestones in Stevie's life. But he said the squadron was like a family and would help ease the stress of being apart.
"We're ready to get over there and do what we have to do," Brown said.
It was a sentiment Spc. Felix Villafranca could relate to.
Villafranca was among those soldiers who had already said goodbye before Friday's deployment.
Last month, he took his wife and young son – almost a year old – to Texas to be close to family while he is in Korea.
Villafranca said he was torn by the deployment. On one hand, he would miss his family. But the soldier said he was ready to start the mission.
"I know this is why I joined," he said. "Now I'm just ready to get it over with and get back home."
Speaking to the soldiers, Col. Erik Gilbert, the commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, promised the soldiers that their families would be taken care of during the deployment.
Gilbert told the soldiers to wear their maroon berets and 82nd Airborne Division patches with pride in Korea.
He said the unit was more than the last of its kind, but could be ranked among the best Kiowa squadrons the Army has ever had.
Frederick said the squadron – more than 350 soldiers will be deployed to Camp Humphries, South Korea – would work closely with soldiers and Marines in Korea. They'll replace the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment of Fort Drum, New York's 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
Frederick said the squadron prepared in many ways as they would have for Iraq or Afghanistan, but the understanding is that Korea will be a different environment.
As part of the 82nd, the squadron is all too familiar with the notion of being ready at a moment's notice, Frederick said. But Korea has its own challenges.
"The difference is, you're there," he said.
Despite those challenges, Frederick said no unit in the Army was more ready for the challenge.
"Everybody's eager," he said.
Following the April flight over Fayetteville, which is believed to have set a new Guiness World Record for a helicopter formation, the squadron has divested all of its helicopters, save for a single Kiowa sitting in the corner of the Simmons hangar.
Frederick said that while the squadron no longer had its own Kiowa helicopters, the unit would not be going away.
After their deployment, the soldiers will return to begin a new organization, a heavy reconnaissance squadron with AH-64 Apaches and unmanned aerial vehicles.