FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — To most Americans, the Iraq War ended nearly a decade ago. In military communities such as Fort Bragg, the nation’s largest Army installation where soldiers serve on the front lines of the war on terror, it never really ended.
But while U.S. soldiers and private contractors — many of them former service members with ties to Fort Bragg — have continued their dangerous missions in the region since the 2011 drawdown, this week’s escalation has even the most battle-hardened community on edge.
About 3,500 paratroopers from Fort Bragg’s 82nd Airborne Division are being sent to the Middle East, after the U.S. airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general and head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The first 650 of the paratroopers deployed on New Year’s Day. The forces are heading to Kuwait.
As tensions escalate, the mood around the sprawling installation with more than 50,000 soldiers has turned serious. This is the first short-notice combat deployment for the 82nd — meaning soldiers leave within 18 hours of the call — since the invasion of Panama in 1989.
Chilion Hargrove, a barber in the town of Spring Lake just beyond Bragg’s gates, said he had several conversations about the deployments Friday morning. Veterans and soldiers realize that killing the Iranian commander could make a volatile situation worse.
“That’s the biggest thing — the consequences,” he said. “It’s what can happen after what just happened. This is a real big deal because he was one of their top generals.”
After 9/11, Fort Bragg’s special operations soldiers almost immediately landed in Afghanistan. The Iraq War two years later involved tens of thousands of soldiers from Fort Bragg. Fayetteville, a city of about 200,000 people where nearly everyone has some connection to the Army, knows well the toll of war and the meaning of sacrifice.
Al and Feliet Bahoric, owners of the Hobbit Hobby Shop on Fayetteville’s Yadkin Road, a commercial strip catering to soldiers, said they support the military. Their son-in-law just retired after serving for 30 years, and Al Bahoric’s father worked his way up from private to colonel.
“These brave young men and women chose an occupation to answer the call of service,” he said. “A lot of the times they’re out in the pouring rain training, or the booms we hear in the middle of the night shows their dedication.”
That is why he said he is not second guessing that they were called upon to deploy.
“Someone knew the right unit to call to make sure they can get the job properly done,” Al Bahoric added, saying he’s not taking a political point of view on the matter.
Down the street, tattoo artist Dennis “King Thesis” Williams said one of his part-time employees would deploy.
The employee cleared out his booth Thursday after working at the shop for about a month.
“He didn’t want to have his stuff here taking up space because he didn’t know when he’d be coming back or not,” Williams said. “One thing I heard him speak about was that they didn’t have time to make arrangements,” such as picking children up from school.
He said he’s had a couple of clients who were also expected to deploy.
“They were also telling me they had to be on call and be ready to leave out, or there was a lot of meetings they had,” he said.
And as a business owner, Williams is bracing for the effects.
“Working in other shops, I’ve seen the effects when these guys are gone, especially in large quantities,” he said.
Lt. Col. Michael Burns, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division, said the 18,000 paratroopers are always ready to respond on short notice. Since the first 650 soldiers deployed Wednesday, the division posted examples on its social media websites of troops maintaining readiness over the past year, which included going to the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, and a live-fire exercise in the spring.
During a news conference Thursday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked why the 82nd Airborne Division was sent for the latest mission.
Esper said the paratroopers augment the special purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force.
“And why them? It’s because they maintain an 18-hour readiness status,” Esper said. “It’s unique in our military, so that’s why them.”
Which is why military families at Fort Bragg know their lives could change at any moment.
James Thompson, who owns a fish market on Bragg Boulevard in Fayetteville, hears his customers talking about Iraq. Veterans and retirees are concerned, too, he said.
“They’re paying very close attention to what’s going on,” he said Friday. “Yesterday, that’s all they were talking about.”