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Next month marks the 16th anniversary of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. And thousands of troops are preparing to deploy, including part of the Army's 25th Infantry Division based in Alaska. For many of these soldiers, it's their first combat deployment. Alaska Public Media's Zachariah Hughes reports on how they're preparing for their mission overseas.
ZACHARIAH HUGHES, BYLINE: Five soldiers are locked inside the cab of an armored assault vehicle that's suspended within big metal hoops. And then they're flipped upside down like some kind of military carnival ride.
STAFF SARGEANT DUSTIN OGDEN: The paratroopers inside are conducting rollover training to prepare themselves for the upcoming deployment to Afghanistan.
HUGHES: Staff Sergeant Dustin Ogden says the point of the exercise is learning how to evacuate a vehicle if it flips, whether that's from rough terrain or a roadside explosive.
OGDEN: So in the event that it does happen while deployed, they can react appropriately.
HUGHES: The 4th Brigade Combat Team 25th Infantry Division is sending about 2,100 troops for a nine-month deployment mostly in eastern parts of Afghanistan. But unlike the last time the 4-25 deployed to the country in 2011, their primary mission isn't direct combat. Instead, they're advising Afghan security forces and assisting in their training, which, according to Sergeant First Class Aaron Cawthon, means teaching a lot of the basics.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS AARON CAWTHON: You know, how we fire our weapons systems, how we put together our weapons systems. How do we conduct our patrols - things of that sort. So that way they can take the lead and protect their country.
HUGHES: Cawthon's from San Antonio, Texas. He enlisted not long after 9/11, and his first deployment was the invasion of Iraq. This will be his fifth. But each previous stint focused more on direct engagement. Still, Cawthon isn't treating it any differently. He's taking the same steps to prepare his family. His packing list and mental expectations are like almost every other time he's deployed.
CAWTHON: It's just a different mission. We're still going to be over there in a combat zone.
HUGHES: Cawthon is in charge of about two dozen other soldiers, and many of them have never deployed before. They have what are called slick sleeves, fuzzy patches of green Velcro on their right shoulder where the insignia patch for a combat-deployed unit will eventually go. Originally from Nevada, Corporal Hank Thompson has been in the Army just a year and a half. And his sleeve is slick. When he learned the unit would be sending personnel to Afghanistan, Thompson hoped he'd be tapped.
CORPORAL HANK THOMPSON: I was pretty jovial. Typically when you - at least in my experience when you go to be especially an infantryman, it's more of a rite of passage. Like, you know, we didn't join to sit on the sideline.
HUGHES: Thompson's job is as a radio telephone operator. But he has no idea whether that'll be the kind of task he's helping with day to day. But it doesn't matter. He just wants to go.
THOMPSON: It's one of those things that you're kind of secretly hoping for and then you're secretly hoping that you do see some action because, you know, you want to become an Army soldier, to take part in the fight versus sitting in garrison or doing the training rotations over and over and over again.
HUGHES: In this he's hardly alone. Sergeant Nicholas Murray did a combat deployment once before in Afghanistan's turbulent Helmand Province, patrolling villages with special forces to beat back the Taliban. Though the Army's role is different this time around, Murray is still excited to be going back.
SERGEANT NICHOLAS MURRAY: When they told us we were going, I couldn't - I can't wait to get over there and actually do my job.
HUGHES: Murray says that job is straightforward.
MURRAY: To close with and destroy the enemy.
HUGHES: This time he'll be teaching his Afghan counterparts how to close with and destroy the enemy. Even though this isn't strictly a combat mission, the prospect of engagement still looms large.
MURRAY: It's kind of hard to explain, actually. I guess as infantrymen it's an adrenaline rush, I guess you could say, that some people grow attached to.
HUGHES: One fixture of deployments is separation from family. Twenty-seven-year-old Murray is a father of three. He and his wife are expecting a fourth child to be born sometime in the months ahead. For NPR News, I'm Zachariah Hughes at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in Anchorage.
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