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Fort Drum prepares for another deployment

Afghan President Hamid Karzai talks with Sgt. Dan Swank after Swank received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his actions while in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division on Tuesday, June 8, 2004, at Fort Drum, N.Y. Jim Mcknight / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

In upstate New York, the men and women of the most deployed division in the army are back in camouflage green. 

The 10th Mountain Division has seen a lot of the world over the past few years:  Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the nation's most recent battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The division lost 11 men fighting Taliban and Al-Qaida elements before returning just a few months ago.

That sacrifice brought President Hamid Karzai here recently to personally express his appreciation to the troops, "for reclaiming our country from terror and oppression." 

"To those of you who have served in Afghanistan, my deepest gratitude," Karzai said on June 8.  "And to those who made the ultimate sacrifice on Afghan soil, we, the people of Afghanistan, mourn them as we mourn our own."

Yet even as Karzai was extending his thanks, more than 3,000 men and women of the 2nd Brigade were receiving word that they were about to depart for Iraq.

Back to well-trodden ground
Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the troops in the brigade already wear combat patches. The troops returned from Iraq only last July, while some members were in Afghanistan as recently as three months ago.

With the U.S. army struggling to come up with enough troops to meet its commitments around the world, the brigade's men and women are once again being deployed to a combat zone.

"It's tough on the families and it's tough on the soldiers," brigade commander Colonel Mark Milley told NBC News. "But this is a unique time in American history." 

"We have our part to play and we want to finish this thing on our watch. If we don't, then our kids - I have a 12-year-old son — then he and they will have to do it on their watch."

Families pay the ultimate sacrifice
Another foreign deployment is especially difficult on the children of Fort Drum. At nearby Calcium Primary School, roughly a quarter of the 370 students have a parent now deployed overseas. Principal Lana Taylor and her staff spend a lot of time comforting children who seem distracted by an outside world that seems very frightening.

"Our mantra is stability," said Taylor. "To keep things as normal as possible. To give these children a safe haven, to give kids a place to go to school that's happy."

Fort Drum and the nearby towns of Calcium and Watertown are a tight-knit community. Wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, and families come together to support each other when the soldiers are gone. The latest deployment to Iraq will last 12 months under the Pentagon's new rules governing tours to Iraq.

For Kim Prayner, the wife of Captain Bill Prayner, it means organizing the company's Family Readiness Support Group, keeping an eye on families staying at Fort Drum during the long deployment.

"My biggest worry is the spouses left behind," she said.  "I know what to expect. I've gone through Iraq deployments before. But for new wives with new babies, it's stressful."

But Kim Prayner is herself left to raise the couple's 18-month old twins on her own, as Bill  will lead 180 soldiers in Iraq.

Capt. Prayner admits he was surprised his brigade was being sent back to Iraq. But his job now is to ensure that his company comes home next year.

"Will I miss my children? Absolutely," said Capt. Prayner. "There's nothing that means more to me in this world. But right now, what needs my undivided attention is my men, and the unit."

"I am privileged to be able to serve them and to have them work for me, and I will bring them home. That is my commitment."

Supporting the other ‘family’
Among Capt. Prayner's men is Sgt. Jared Wolshleger, who returned from Afghanistan in April. Because he had been home only a few months, Wolshleger was not expected to return to Iraq with second brigade. 

After four years in the army, he would likely have been allowed a discharge this summer so he could begin college in the fall, as he had planned. 

But Wolshleger could not stay home while his friends left for a war zone. So he re-enlisted with the army, on the condition he could deploy to Iraq with his company. 

"Besides my parents, I don't have any family," Wolshleger said the afternoon he was packing his duffel bag for Iraq. "The guys I work with every day basically are my family and I just could not stay behind while they went away to do something that isn't going to be easy."

It is a common theme heard from members of the 2nd Brigade. They were leaving their own families behind for a year to join their other "family" — one that for many soldiers has come to mean just as much, if not more.