This much is certain: About 1,200 Joint Base Lewis-McChord Army aviators gathered Friday to set off on a nine-month mission in Afghanistan that should mark the last major deployment to the war for a conventional force out of the South Sound installation.
What happens afterward for troops in the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade remains to be seen. They’ll hit the ground just in time for national elections that could determine what kind of long-term presence the U.S. military retains in Afghanistan.
“They are venturing out on a historic journey because we all know we are in changing times in Afghanistan,” said 7th Infantry Division Commander Maj. Gen. Terry Ferrell.
The brigade is taking Lewis-McChord troops who fly and maintain Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. They’ll be joined by a Chinook-flying battalion from Fort Wainwright in Alaska and a battalion equipped with Kiowas out of the Tennessee National Guard.
Their assignment will center on backing up ground forces by providing intelligence-gathering, assault, airlift and medical evacuation assets.
“We are going where our customers need us,” said Brigade Commander Col. Paul Mele, referring to the ground troops who will call on the aviators for support.
So far, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declined to sign an agreement that would outline how many U.S. troops would remain in his country after 2014. As a result, the Defense Department reportedly is drawing up plans for a complete withdrawal of the 34,000 military service members in Afghanistan.
“It all uncertain right now,” said Amy Gill. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Robert Gill, is leaving for his fourth overseas deployment in his 15-year career.
Last year, Lewis-McChord infantry brigades sent home soldiers early from deployments as Afghan forces exerted more control on the battlefield. Helicopter units might not have as much flexibility because they’re essential for ground forces in the mountainous country.
“Hopefully it’s a safe one and they’ll be out quickly,” said Gill, the family readiness group leader for the brigade’s headquarters company.
She has already planned some gatherings for families in the aviation brigade.
“I just want them to stay connected,” she said. “No problem is too small.”