Seven battalions from the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division lined up Friday morning on a central lawn in Fort Wainwright for the Casing of the Colors, a traditional ceremony that takes place before each deployment.
Each battalion was lined up behind its unique flag. The ceremony involved speeches from a number of top-ranking officials, including Maj. Gen. Peter Andrysiak, commanding general of Army Alaska, while the flags were covered up to symbolize the beginning of the deployment to Iraq of just under 2,500 Fort Wainwright soldiers.
Soldiers began deploying as early as Aug. 18, but the majority will be flying out over the next several weeks. About half of the brigade will be based in Iraq for nine months. The purpose is to drive out remaining ISIS forces in designated areas of Iraq and Syria and to set conditions for follow-on operations to increase regional stability.
"ISIS has evolved into a covert network, many of them in sleeper cells. It is up to us to maintain the pressure so a resurgence like we witnessed in 2013 does not happen again," Andrysiak said to the assembled troops. "Your mission - to assist partner security forces, increase and enhance their capabilities, and secure their nation - is critical for success against a determined enemy. It will be difficult and demanding, but make no mistake, you are ready."
There was a sense of excitement mingled with nerves among the soldiers, many of whom have been waiting for months and described themselves as "eager" to head to Iraq.
"Leadership had been speaking about it. I think it was last year that they were like ‘We're deploying, but we're not sure when.' So we just had to be on standby," said Spc. Erwin Agustin, 20, who is heading out on his first deployment. "But now, we got the news, we got our orders. I'm excited."
Agustin, who is aspiring to become a sergeant, is from the Philippines but grew up in San Diego and has been serving for a little over two years at Fort Wainwright. He, like many others, is keen to put his training to use in a real-world situation.
"I'm looking forward to experiencing something new. I'm willing to stay in the Army for 20 years, so deploying, for me, is a step closer to reaching my goal of being a sergeant," he said. "Who knows, for my next deployment I might be a sergeant and have soldiers looking up to me. I want to deploy so I can serve my country, because this country's given me so much. Growing up in the Philippines, we didn't have a lot."
Agustin will be serving alongside some who have achieved his dream - like Sgt. Steven Cavazos, 22, who is from Texas and has spent his entire three-year military career so far in Alaska. This will also be Cavazos' first deployment.
Cavazos explained that the brigade's training has involved two trips to Fort Irwin National Training Center in California, as well as a number of live-fire exercises.
"That's where we bring the platoon together and we show our commanders what we know: squad movements, how to clear rooms, stuff like that," he said. "So they can see ‘Oh, they're ready - they're ready to crush it.'"
Cavazos said that his duties will involve supporting the brigade's field artillery company while they in turn support the Iraqi army. He said, at least initially, they'll be based in the vicinity of the city of Mosul. He said anyone heading on their first deployment is taught to adapt to the culture shock.
"We've had many classes getting us ready to familiarize yourself with the language and what to expect," he said. "You'll see a totally different culture to what you've known in the United States. Most of the new dudes we've got - the brand new privates - they haven't experienced much. That's going to be a shock for them and open their eyes."
While Cavazos doesn't have a spouse or any children, he noted that the Army provides a lot of support to the families who are left behind when a soldier goes overseas.
That statement was corroborated by Spc. Austin O'Connor and his wife, Hannah, who are high school sweethearts from Minnesota. After Austin joined the Army, they were based at Fort Polk in Louisiana for three years. During that time, Austin had his first deployment, which was nine months in Iraq; after roughly a year in Fairbanks he's heading off for round two. He was holding his 3-year-old son, Ronan, while the couple answered questions about this latest deployment.
"He (Ronan) was about a year old when he first deployed," Hannah said. "The first month or so, it was rough - just waiting to get communication set up with him. He was kind of in a remote location. It took a bit to get adjusted to the different time zones and being able to FaceTime and call each other."
Hannah said it was hard to adjust but that they eventually found a routine in which they could speak for a couple of hours each day. This time, she said, it may be easier because Austin will be stationed near a United Services Organization facility, which may have Wi-Fi. Though she seemed sad at the prospect of saying goodbye, she was resolute.
"This is the job. You just have to accept it no matter what," she said. "Personally, I don't think it gets easier. I guess I know how to handle things better this time around - you know, taking time to just be sad for a few days and getting over him leaving. Then getting into a solid routine again."
Hannah said their son is now old enough to understand what's happening and that his father will be gone for nine months, which makes things a little harder this time around. The couple have made recordings of Austin reading books for his son to listen to and other messages, which they installed into a teddy bear.
The O'Connors also have a second child due to be born "any day now." In light of this, the Army is allowing Austin to deploy a little later than he was initially supposed to so he can spend a little time with his newborn.
While spouses have the option of being flown back to their home states, Hannah is staying in Alaska. With regard to advice, she encouraged other spouses to get in touch with their Soldier Family Readiness Group, a support group for families of deployed soldiers.
"We need volunteers. Anyone who's willing to help out with the care team, our key callers, anything," she said. "The key callers are given family member's numbers from each platoon. They reach out to the family members who have any questions."
The Soldier Family Readiness Group also has a care team. If a soldier is injured or dies while deployed, these group members help the spouse by doing things like babysitting or bringing meals to them.
Following the ceremony, Col. Matthew W. Brown, the Stryker brigade's commander, noted that half of the brigade will remain at Fort Wainwright to continue to "build readiness." With regard to those heading to Iraq, he was unequivocal.
"We are 100% ready," he said. "These soldiers have trained extremely hard and I'm proud of every single one of them."
Contact staff writer Alistair Gardiner at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.