FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Organizers of a monthly storytelling gathering for the children of soldiers are planning to spend part of their next meeting making yellow ribbons. A doughnut shop owner who often donates his fried goods to troops who are shipping out has spent the last few days rushing a batch of hundreds.
And Jade Morales, a young military wife, welcomed the new year feeling deeply unsettled as her husband, so close to retirement from the U.S. Army, hurried off to an uncertain situation with far less warning than usual.
“We weren’t prepared for this,” said Morales, 20. “And so, it’s just been a whirlwind, especially because I’m not used to being alone.”
In a community long accustomed to the daily rhythms of military life, the flare-up in tensions between the United States and Iran in recent days reverberated immediately: At Fort Bragg, some 3,500 soldiers in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division were ordered to the Middle East in one of the largest rapid deployments in decades. Regarded as the nation’s rapid-response force, the division is trained to take off in large numbers in as few as 18 hours after orders arrive.
Still, the frenetic pace of the past few days has delivered a jolt even to a community familiar with the stresses stirred by a deployment — and its rippling consequences.
“It’s America’s 911,” said Brian Knight, the director of the area’s United Service Organizations, repeating a dictum often spoken around the base as a testament to its significance as one of the largest military installations in the world and an economic and cultural backbone for the area. “The president picks up the phone and it rings at Fort Bragg.”
The tide of the community, in many ways, ebbs and flows based on the gravitational pull of conflicts a world away: When a deployment comes, a barber’s regular customers disappear, and their sons are brought in by their mothers. When troops flood back, just as more than 20,000 did after a pivotal moment during the Iraq war, the subsequent baby booms overwhelm hospitals and deplete the stock in the maternity sections of department stores.
The base is on constant alert, with troops always positioned to spring into action. But two decades of war that have followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has made stints abroad routine and planned well in advance. Now, the “no-notice” deployment has rocked families as soldiers were given very little time to pack up and leave.
On Facebook, the wife of a recently deployed soldier confessed, “I’m slowly losing my sanity,” noting that she was pregnant and 12 hours away from the rest of her family. At a local brewery, Ashley Thompson, a teacher, wondered whether any of her students would return to class next week with altered family situations.
“I’ll find out whether any of my kids had any parents that had been deployed,” she said. “That’ll be hard.”
Fort Bragg, which sprawls across more than 160,000 acres and into six counties in the sandhills of North Carolina, is the base for airborne and special operations forces, housing more than 50,000 active military personnel. About 10% of the Army’s forces are anchored there, just outside of Fayetteville, a city of about 200,000 people.
The base’s size and history have made it a defining force even in communities beyond its boundaries: Advertisements for military tactical gear hang in the Fayetteville airport; close-cropped hair is always in fashion; and war is never an abstract discussion about geopolitics but a personal conversation about the potential fallout close to home.
The deployment comes after Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian commander, was killed in an airstrike that President Donald Trump said he had ordered in an effort to “stop a war.” But it has also heightened friction with Iran, as its leaders have vowed to retaliate.
“I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m the most up-to-date on politics and all of that stuff,” said Zachary Winn, 29, whose father served in the 82nd Airborne and whose friend was in it now and just deployed. “But it seems to me, just as soon as we think things are starting to slow down, it’s like we are right back over there again.”
In the past, the deployments have had an impact on local businesses, with fewer customers going into restaurants and entertainment venues. Families often delay large purchases until their relative has returned.
“Any time soldiers leave Fort Bragg, you definitely see it,” said Travis Fowler, a barber who has worked for 17 years in a shop that sits near the base’s perimeter. “The guy you normally see on a Friday, you don’t see for a while.”
Military officials said that an infantry battalion of roughly 650 soldiers were deployed after protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called the American response “an appropriate and precautionary action.” The troops are likely headed to Kuwait.
Now, many more were preparing to join them, with some 2,800 others leaving in the coming days. Army officials said that was likely the largest rapid deployment for military purposes since 1989, when troops invaded Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega. But soldiers also swiftly shipped out for humanitarian missions, to Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 and to the Gulf Coast in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.
Troops rotate through turns being on “two-hour recall,” meaning they have to be able to report within the limited window. Reserves of munitions, as well as water and food, are stored on base. But families are not as familiar with this kind of rapid deployment, sending them rushing to prepare.
“That’s a whole lot of getting yourself in order,” said Lt. Col. Mike Burns, a public affairs officer for the 82nd Airborne. “It’s a surprise for a lot of people, but the soldiers are happy and proud to do it.”
On a rainy Saturday morning, carrier planes on a tarmac at Fort Bragg were loaded with supplies. And in a warehouse of a building, men and women waiting to head out napped on wooden benches, their backpacks repurposed as pillows. Copies of the Bible and Quran had been set out on a table, along with rosaries and prayer cards.
One soldier was rounding up others to get breakfast from the USO, telling them to put away the snacks they had brought themselves.
The heft of the distress over the deployment has come from the uncertainty over what awaits the soldiers and, in turn, their families and friends.
Morales, who arrived at Fort Bragg in September, said that her husband’s last duty station had been in Alaska, where he did not have rapid deployments. In the past, he usually had about a four-month notice. This time, the heads-up came hours before he needed to report on base.
She said she planned to temporarily move to Las Vegas to stay with her mother. She will dive into her studies to be a veterinary technician, she said. And she will try to remain calm. “Just trying to keep my head away from the news,” she said, “and, you know, not looking at Facebook as much.”
Knight, the USO director, said that he cautioned families to brace themselves for a marathon of waiting.
“With something like this, you don’t know,” he said. “What I tell any of the family members, ‘Hey, bank on nine months.’ Just think worst-case scenario is nine months, and if they come home a day earlier, you’ve already won.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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