FORT CAMPBELL - The leaders of Clarksville and the other communities surrounding Fort Campbell turned out in force on a damp, gray day to say goodbye as the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) Headquarters "cased the colors" and prepared to deploy.
Based on the time-honored military principle that states, "where the commander is, there also are the colors," the ceremony in which a cover is placed over a unit's distinctive flag conveys the reality that the unit is deploying to perform a mission.
The colors will be uncased and unfurled when the division arrives in Afghanistan.
The 101st Airborne, which was alerted for deployment in early December, is headed back to Afghanistan for what may well be the last time.
With three brigades already in place and another to follow in the spring, the Screaming Eagles will take responsibility for Regional Command East for the third time since 2008, under vastly different circumstances than the last deployment, which was the deadliest for the 101st Airborne since Vietnam.
As part of the Afghanistan "surge" in 2010-11, the division's task was to take the battle to the Taliban and Haqqani Network and to deny them freedom of movement and any sense of safety. The purpose was to set the conditions for what is happening now, as U.S. and coalition forces increasingly turn responsibility for Afghanistan's security over to the Afghans.
Advise and assist
McConville explained the mission in the simplest possible terms to the crowd at Freedom Fighter Gym.
"Our mission," said Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, Commander, 101st Airborne Division, "is to advise and assist Afghan forces so they can secure their country."
McConville stressed the words, "their country."
As he looked out on a gathering that included the widow and comrades of Vietnam-era Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Leslie H. Sabo, honored at division headquarters less than an hour before, McConville acknowledged, "We stand on the shoulders of heroes," invoking Normandy, Bastogne, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and of course, Afghanistan.
The 101st Airborne, represented by the "Rakkasans" of 3rd Brigade more than a decade ago, was among the first units other than Special Forces to go into Afghanistan following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At the time, few guessed that the tunnel of America's involvement in that nation would be so long and so dark.
At Freedom Fighter Gym on Fort Campbell on Friday afternoon, despite the gray skies that still loomed overhead, the light at the end of that tunnel could finally be seen.