GARDEZ, Afghanistan — The Spartans line up, possibly for a final time, in Afghanistan. Several hundred soldiers form ranks, one holding the Spartan banner, symbol of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, of the 10th Mountain Division. They're on what passes for the main street at Foward Operating Base Lightning, a small outpost in the eastern part of the country. Officers hand out medals earned during the nine months the Brigade has been deployed here, during which they have lost four soldiers to combat .
This has been the fourth time the Spartans have been sent to Afghanistan since they were formed in 2004, but it will be the last. They are headed home, and with the U.S. ceasing combat operations by the end of the year, the Spartans will not be coming back again.
"I think it's a good thing there's no more upcoming deployments," said Sargeant Wilfredo Bonilla, adding he's ready for whatever the Army asks of him. Bonilla is typical of the soldiers in this corner of Afghanistan. He's done three deployments, two to Iraq, and one here to Afghanistan.
Captain Greg Durso, himself on his second tour in Afghanistan, said his platoon sergeant on his last tour of duty was on his fifth deployment. "It becomes a way of life and almost too regular, so I'm glad we're getting away from that," he said.
The soldiers we spoke to say this deployment was different from their first here in 2006, and that the Afghans they're advising are capable of taking on more of the fight this time around. Captain Brian McGrath, at nearby FOB Shank, said of Afghan soldiers: "They do almost everything on their own at this point." But as has often been the case since America got involved in Afghanistan, issues in Iraq have overshadowed what happens here.
During our visit to the Third Brigade, the Iraqi security forces were being routed by ISIS militants. But Afghan forces here insist they are motivated to defend their country and that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan's leaders (still to be determined pending a presidential runoff vote count) are committed to signing an agreement that will allow U.S. forces to remain here after combat operations end.
There were similiar high hopes, of course, for Iraqi forces trained for years and equipped with American weapons and vehicles. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq , there may be no way of knowing how sucessful Afghan forces will be until they are truly operating independently.
Whatever happens in Afghanistan, all of the Third Brigade will be home in upstate New York by the end of July. With commitments diminishing, the Army is reducing its ranks, and the Third Brigade has been selected for inactivation. It will happen formally in a ceremony in which the unit's colors are "cased," or basically retired. As for the men and women of the Spartans, they will head off to other assignments, other units, all after having an extended period at home with their families.
Captain Durso says the timing of winding down the Third Brigade is appropriate.
"The Brigade was created because of Afghanistan , all four of its deployments were to Afghanistan and now that Afghanistan is coming to an end, Third Brigade is coming to an end, so it's served its purpose well."