By Ryan Lenz
The Associated Press
FORT CAMPBELL - Combat soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division will begin deploying to Iraq in the next week, two years after the division helped topple Saddam Hussein, Army officials said Thursday.
The Army is processing nearly 1,000 soldiers a day at Fort Campbell. The 3rd Brigade is preparing to be among the division's first combat units to replace the Army's 42nd Infantry Division. It operates out of Tikrit, in north central Iraq.
For many, it's a moment filled with nervous excitement despite having been to the battlefield before. For others, it is a sobering dose of reality to wait in long lines to check everything from vaccinations to mental health.
About 3,600 troops from Fort Campbell are already in Iraq, including hospital and artillery forces. The departure of units from the 3rd Brigade, known as the Rakkasans, marks the beginning of a deployment many had expected.
"It's easy going over there," said Sgt. Jeff Desrosier, 34, of Grand Forks, N.D., as he laughed and told jokes with fellow soldiers. "But what's hard is when I'm in the kitchen and my son comes up crying and hugging me."
On Thursday, soldiers filed into an old gym at Fort Campbell to update personal records including contact information for next of kin, personal information to help officials identify them if captured, even details for the type of funeral they'd like to have.
"I'm just ready to go to Iraq and get it over with," said Sgt. Sheroda McLendon, 27, of Macon, Ga., after receiving one of several shots that the Army requires of soldiers going to Iraq.
About 19,000 soldiers from the division deployed to Iraq in 2003. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the division was assigned to the Mosul area of northern Iraq.
The nature of the conflict has changed since then, said Maj. John Calahan, the brigade's executive officer. He was waiting in line with enlisted soldiers to receive one of the many medical checks. But the Rakkasans are ready, he said.
"The entire time we were there last year, the enemy was constantly evolving. And they've continued to evolve," he said. "But on the same token, we have also evolved."
For those soldiers deploying for the first time, finalizing their affairs all at once drove home the coming deployment.
"It really made me step back and ask what is it that's worth leaving my family for," said Staff Sgt. Jesse Riggin, 24, of Middletown, Del. "It basically comes down to waking up every morning and having a purpose."
The movement of the 101st and 159th Aviation Brigades and the division's four combat brigades - more than 20,000 troops - will be carried out in stages, possibly through November, Army officials said.