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U.S. troops head to Poland

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

More U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division boarded flights to Poland today. They're being deployed under the looming threat of Russia invading Ukraine. Jay Price spent the day at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and he joins us now.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Hey, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Hi, Jay. So tell us more about these deployments.

PRICE: Yeah. So early this month, the Pentagon announced it was sending about 1,700 paratroopers from the 82nd. Then last week, as tensions continued, they said they were sending more - a lot more - 3,000. So today, I went out to where some of that second group were loading onto chartered commercial jets.

NADWORNY: And what are those troops tasked with doing in Poland?

PRICE: Well, other than reassuring our allies in the region, it's unclear. One of the senior enlisted soldiers I talked with went about as far as anyone actually can with that right now. He'd been deployed in 2010 to Haiti for a humanitarian mission after an earthquake and then to Iraq the next year with the 82nd. In both cases, he said, the job was pretty well defined. This time, it's not what he called a set mission.

But the White House and Pentagon have been adamant this is not a combat mission, and the troops will not be going into Ukraine. They've said that again and again.

NADWORNY: What was the mood among the troops? What did they have to say?

PRICE: Well, I also talked with several younger soldiers in their late teens and 20s who had never been deployed before. And, you know, now, the passenger terminal where soldiers wait to board at Bragg, at Pope Army Airfield, is really just a big - set of big metal buildings, like warehouses, with wood benches. It's this kind of iconic place known as the green ramp. And the buildings were full of them and their gear and weapons.

And I've seen a lot of deployments there and left on a few myself. And they were just more upbeat than usual, maybe because this isn't a combat deployment. Here's one 19-year-old, PFC Francisco Montoya, who's been in the army for about a year and a half.

FRANCISCO MONTOYA: We're excited, you know? Something new. You know, we've never done this before.

PRICE: And I also talked to specialist Thomas Ventura, who's 25 and who also had never deployed. He was happy just being sent out on a mission. Ventura said he'd had trouble for - sleeping for days and days and, you know, just wondering - waking up at night, wondering when he'd finally get the order to go. And here's how he put it.

THOMAS VENTURA: Expect the unexpected. I just expect the worst but hope for the best. I mean, having a really good group around you also comforts your mind when you know the people that are around you and that you guys know each other's families and stuff like that. So just ready to go...

PRICE: Just ready to go and pretty cheerful about it. I mean, they were standing around in groups, joking. You know, and again, these troops aren't expected to see combat. And their mission hasn't fully taken shape, though if Russia does move into Ukraine, part of it may be helping process Americans fleeing by land into Poland.

I mean, we all saw those scenes from the Kabul airport. The 82nd was there, saw that, knew what it was up to and learned lessons from that. And the 82nd, you know, is really flexible and is used to ambivalent missions. It trains for short-notice deployments and acts as the nation's contingency force. About a third of the division's already - is always ready to go.

NADWORNY: Yeah.

PRICE: ...Sometimes on as little as 18 hours.

NADWORNY: Wow.

PRICE: Which is why it gets the call whenever we need a large number of troops in a hurry, be it for combat, humanitarian missions or just a show of force.

NADWORNY: Thanks so much. That's Jay Price outside Fort Bragg, N.C.

PRICE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECONDITE'S "CAPABLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.