By LOLITA C. BALDOR
FORT BRAGG, N.C. — In the crowded hangar at Simmons Army Airfield, Aaron Williams is saying goodbye to his family.
It’s his third deployment to war, and the first since eight-month-old Derek was born.
“I’m getting out after this one,” he says, as his son, Tristan, 2, energetically waves the small flags he’s holding tightly in each hand. “It’s too hard on the kids, too hard for me.”
For the members of the 82nd Airborne’s Combat Aviation Brigade, three war tours in the past five years is not uncommon. On this hot and sticky September day at Fort Bragg, about 200 members of the brigade got their final medical checks, hoisted rucksacks and squeezed in their final farewell hugs with few outward signs of the strain wrought by the long and repeated deployments.
Army aviators — the soldiers who fly attack missions, ferry troops and supplies and evacuate the wounded — are in ever-increasing demand even as America eyes the exits in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan conflict, which marked its 10th anniversary Friday, is in many ways a helicopter war.
“This war is so helicopter-centric,” said Col. T.J. Jamison, the brigade commander. “We’re just limited in the number of helicopters we have. And, they are absolutely needed. You can’t get enough aviation into Afghanistan right now.”
The pilots are flying roughly 63 hours a month, nearly five times the peacetime average, and often through rugged Afghan mountain terrain in the pitch-black night.
Top Army leaders are well aware of the combat demands on their aviation brigades — war requirements that have forced long and repeated tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. And they know that as the Pentagon works to extend the time soldiers spend at home between deployments, the aviation units will be among the last to see the longer breaks.
According to Army officials, their flight crews have flown more than 1.2 million hours in Afghanistan as of mid-August, and triple that number in Iraq. The bulk of those are in Black Hawk and Apache helicopters.
To meet the war demands, the Army increased the number of aviation brigades, and now has 12 active duty and eight National Guard units. A 13th active duty brigade will be ready next year.
The grueling deployment pace is a key contributor to the devastating mental and emotional toll the wars are taking on America’s military people. The suicide rate has escalated across the services, along with incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
Officials estimate that as many as a fifth of the active duty troops has suffered acute stress, anxiety, depression or other mental problems from a war zone deployment. But many don’t seek help, and commanders struggle to monitor their troops and recognize any early signs of distress.
Still, it’s difficult to predict who might be affected, or when.
Maj. Stanton Trotter, the aviation brigade’s chaplain, is moving through the hangar talking with soldiers and their families. He’ll go to these goodbye ceremonies until all 2,500 members have deployed.
On this day, there are the wide-eyed, eager first-timers among the soldiers boarding buses that will take them on the first leg of a nearly weeklong journey to Afghanistan. There are also a lot of veterans who can tick off the dates of their multiple deployments, punctuated by asides on whether they were home or away for holidays or when their children were born.
When Lt. Col. John Cyrulik was figuring out the leave schedule for his Task Force Wolfpack battalion over the next year, he gave priority to those who had the most months at war since 2006.
“We have over a dozen that have been deployed nearly three years of the past five,” said Cyrulik. Others, he said, have seen as many as 30 months at war since 2006.
Pilot Charles Irving, a chief warrant officer 4, has 36 months under his belt. Next to him, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Keith Matz lists 33 months at war.
“This is the worst part — getting there,” said Irving, referring to the weeklong succession of flights, changing planes and airport waiting they will do before landing in eastern Afghanistan. They will be there a year.
Asked about the stress, Matz shrugs, “It’s a job. I know what I’m getting into. You get into the daily routine, and the working time flies.”
According to Trotter, the problems with stress are about evenly split between the veterans and the first-timers.
The veterans, he said, can recall in detail their first battle, the first casualty, the first buddy they lost in combat
“For those with more deployments, each incident brings up other intense times,” said Trotter, who is on his fourth deployment since 9/11. “And when they have a loss, they are grieving the losses from earlier deployments.”
In many cases, he said, the experienced ones become resilient and figure out how to manage their time and balance their activities.
The new ones, he said, find that it’s not what they thought it would be.
“There are long periods of dullness broken up by short periods of fear and intense combat,” said Trotter.
Sometimes, it’s those who don’t get out into combat who find it harder to cope.
For the air crews, there’s a bit of a release in going out on a mission.
But for the analysts or support staff back at the base, there are endless days sitting at desks, staring at computer screens, sorting through data. Commanders say that often those are the soldiers they need to watch, to make sure they get out, have exercise and break up the monotony.
Specialist Breeanna Taylor is one of the first-timers, and she doesn’t know exactly what to expect. She’s been told about the down time, but the 21-year-old is eager to get to the battlefront.
“This is what I wanted since I was five,” said the petite soldier, as the lines start to form near the buses. “The reason I joined was to go to war. I want to protect my country.”