They had barely a week to prepare — getting medical screenings, making sure bills would be paid, arranging for relatives to care for children and pets — before marching with rucksacks and rifles onto a plane bound for Germany.
“It’s been very hectic and stressful, but overall it’s worked out,” Army Staff Sgt. Ricora Jackson said Wednesday as she waited with dozens of fellow soldiers to board a chartered flight at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.
They're among 3,800 troops from the 1st Armored Brigade of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, based at nearby Fort Stewart in southeast Georgia, ordered to deploy quickly and bolster U.S. forces in Europe after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In all, the Pentagon has ordered about 12,000 service members from various U.S. bases to Europe, with a couple of thousand more already stationed abroad shifting to other European countries.
The soldiers' mission overseas is to train alongside military units of NATO allies in a display of force aimed at deterring further aggression by Russia. It's not that different from the role the brigade played last year during a scheduled rotation in South Korea.
But Jackson, a 22-year-old tank gunner from Pensacola, Florida, said this deployment feels different. Although U.S. forces aren't intervening in Ukraine, that war has increased tensions in neighboring NATO countries.
“I’m a little nervous, but it’s OK," Jackson said.
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Maj. Gen. Charles Costanza, the 3rd Infantry's commander, said the rapid deployment has had a mixed impact on morale within the brigade, which had been in the midst of training.
Younger, single soldiers, he said, have been excited to embark on their first mission overseas. But more experienced soldiers with families, used to a routine deployment calendar with plenty of time to prepare, have felt the disruption more.
“They were in the field shooting gunnery when we got the official word that it was time for them to go,” Costanza said. "You have a lot of them married, or with a new baby, and it's their first time to really do a no-notice deployment.”
Costanza said soldiers and their families were told to expect the deployment to last six months, which could be extended — or perhaps shortened — depending on developments in Ukraine.
“There is no intent to have any U.S. service member fight in Ukraine," Costanza said. "And they know that.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Cooner, departing for Germany means leaving his three daughters — ages 7, 5 and 3 — just a few months after he returned home from South Korea.
A 35-year-old tank crewman and platoon leader from Fort Myers, Florida, Cooner said he's trying to keep the 15 soldiers under his command focused on the day-to-day training mission without dwelling on the invasion and war that prompted it.
“Something I’ve preached to my soldiers about, when we talk about stress and being able to control stress, is to focus on the things that are in our sphere of control," Cooner said.
Sgt. 1st Class Crystal Allen, who works in logistics, and her husband, a soldier assigned to a different battalion in the 1st Brigade, were also leaving two children at home.
The married soldiers' son and daughter had been picked up by Allen's mother to stay with her in Kentucky while their parents deployed.
“I’m very honest with the kids and I don’t lie," said Allen, 35. "I tell them exactly what I’m going over to do and they acknowledge it. I tell them where I’m going. And I pitch it to them like, 'Hey, you get to go stay with Nanny for a little bit.' And that’s good enough for them.”
Likewise, Cpl. Christian Morris' in-laws were looking after two dogs belonging to him and his wife, an Army medic who's also headed to Germany.
The 21-year-old soldier from Bend, Oregon, who serves in a supply unit, said he'll be glad to have his spouse nearby, though they won't be living together while deployed.
“It’ll just be, 'Hey, you want to go grab something to eat if we have the chance?'" Morris said. “That’ll be about the most interaction we’ll be realistically allowed to have.”
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