FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Among the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne's 1st Brigade Combat Team, there's a sinking feeling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will fade away. Instead of an exciting and challenging combat tour, they'll be relegated to the dread "garrison life" here at Fort Bragg.
For those who enlisted after 9/11, combat deployments have been an expected part of the deal. The constant cycle of deployments of the past decade has no doubt been tough on families, and the strain is exacting a cost on the physical and mental fitness of those in uniform; certainly there are some who are sick of it.
But others are eager to get in at least one last deployment before the fighting ends, dreading a life confined to their home base, with its 9-to-5 routine and endless training for a war that never comes. They signed up to go to war. They are good at it, especially the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan which demands courage, physical stamina, ingenuity and individual initiative.
"I'm afraid I'm not going to get the chance to go again," said Spec. Brenton Parish, a 21-year-old paratrooper from Fond du Lac, Wis. "I like doing my job, and I can only do that when I'm deployed," he told The Huffington Post.
In few other endeavors is a 21-year-old given responsibility for the lives of a dozen of his or her colleagues, or charged with negotiating a peace deal with village elders and tribesmen.
Increasingly over the past decade, Americans in uniform have come to think of themselves as professionals, and war is their profession.
"We're itching to go back -- our boys are out there," said Sgt. Brandon Mendes, 27, from St. Louis, a communications specialist. "As the most free nation in the world, there's a responsibility that goes with that. Everybody sees a purpose to it; we're out there doing something."
For these soldiers, life at war is simpler, more exciting and more fulfilling than life at home at Fort Bragg or Camp Lejeune. Out there, "down-range" in the military vernacular, young sergeants and lieutenants hold power. Often they are leading their men on dangerous missions that carry important strategic weight: convincing village elders to side with the Afghan government and not with the Taliban. It is meaningful work laced with adrenalin -- and no worries about car payments or babysitters.
Not to be overlooked: pay is tax-free in a war zone, and there's an extra $550 a month paid for hazardous duty.
In contrast, life at home -- in garrision -- is routine, and there's enough brass around that more strict attention is paid to carefully mowed lawns, spotless uniforms, shined shoes and meticulous barbering.
"I want to get in at least one more deployment, to Afghanistan," said Capt. Tom Cieslak, a staff officer with the 1st Brigade. "If we're going back to garrison life, to pressed and starched uniforms and all that? After my seven years of war, I don't think I could do that."
Deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are slowing dramatically. Of the 46,000 troops left in Iraq, many units already shipping home and not being replaced. Two battalions are coming back from Afghanistan this summer, followed by a third battalion this fall. They will not be replaced.
"Yeah, it seems to be toning down," Spec. Nicholas Weeks, a 21-year-old paratrooper from Payette, Idaho, said recently. "I definitely want to go again. That's why I joined. I like deployments a lot more than being in garrison; on deployment we're actually doing our job."
Until recently, the deployment cycle was rigid and predictable: as one brigade was preparing to leave the war zone, another was arriving to take its place with a third training to go. Deployments were planned years in advance; after arriving home, commanders had barely a year to receive and train new soldiers and Marines, restock equipment and retrain before they were off on another deployment.
But that momentum has been broken. There are some brigades that aren't even on the future deployment schedule.
Not only is the deployment cycle slowing down, but both the Army and Marine Corps are due to shed the extra manpower they were allotted at the height of the fighting in Iraq -- about 22,000 troops -- with potential future cuts reaching as much as 40,000 personnel.
When announcing the phased withdrawal of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan last month, President Obama declared: "The tide of war is receding."
"Guys are starting to smell it," said Army Col. Mark Stock, who commands the 1st Brigade Combat Team. He said soldiers are already frantically conniving and trading to get into a brigade that's scheduled to deploy.
There are some who are so accustomed to life in combat that they simply are uncomfortable back home, even living on a military base. It's not unknown for combat veterans to volunteer for back-to-back deployments.
"I feel safer over there than here," said a sergeant who has deployed numerous times in Iraq and Afghanistan and is no longer on active duty. "I know what the situation is, I trust the guys over there. I don't trust hardly anybody here."
Garrison life can be more dangerous than living in Afghanistan. In a major study released last year, the Army reported that a small but growing number of soldiers who perform credibly in combat turn to high-risk behavior at home, including drug abuse, drunk driving, motorcycle street-racing, petty crime and domestic violence.
The study, commissioned by Gen. Peter Chiarelli, assistant chief of staff, estimated that 40,000 soldiers are using drugs illicitly, and misdemeanor offenses are rising by 5,000 cases a year. Among the growing number of Army suicides -- which soared past the civilian rate and reached a record 300 cases last year -- almost half had never deployed from garrison.
In addition to the suicides, the Army study noted there were 107 fatal accidents among its active-duty soldiers and 50 murders in 2009, part of an ugly toll of 345 active-duty, non-combat deaths -- about 100 more than were killed in combat that year.
According to the report's authors, platoon sergeants and company commanders who gave their soldiers a great deal of freedom to maneuver in Afghanistan were failing to provide close supervision once their soldiers returned to the temptations of garrison life.
"Simply stated, we are often more dangerous to ourselves than the enemy," the study concluded.
Still, not all soldiers are unhappy to see the wars winding down.
Capt. Bryan Morgan, 30, an airborne company commander from Indianola, Wash., fought a hard tour in Ramadi, in western Iraq, in 2004, and recently went back for a second year as an adviser to the Iraqi security forces.
"I'm glad to see the end of it," he said recently. "I'm glad that we accomplished something. I lost some friends over there, and Iraq has improved, the standard of living is better, and the police I worked with are more honest. That's the end state everybody's worked for."
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more