Most of the soldiers with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, who were sent to the Middle East in January have yet to come home because of both tensions with Iran and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, Army Gen. Mark Milley said on Thursday.

“We are monitoring, almost daily, actually, to determine exactly when to bring them home,” Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a live-streamed town hall in which top defense officials answered questions from troops and their families. “The secretary is very keen on bringing them home. But it’s dependent upon the overall security situation between Iraq and Iran.”

About 3,500 paratroopers with the brigade deployed to Kuwait in January after thousands of Iranian-backed militia fighters assaulted the U.S. embassy in Baghdad the previous month. 

Then came the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the commander of Kata'ib Hezbollah, which triggered an Iranian ballistic missile attack on the Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq that left more than 100 U.S. troops based there with mild traumatic brain injury.

In February, about 800 paratroopers with the 82 Airborne Division returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But Milley acknowledged on Thursday that the rest of the brigade is still in the Middle East.

“The COVID crisis came upon us midstream,” Milley said at the town hall. “We redeployed one of maneuver battalions but the remainder of the brigade task force combat team has stayed there, in part of the COVID crisis but also in part because the situation with the Shia militia groups and Iran, etc., has not 100 % settled down.”

To Milley’s second point, the U.S. military struck five Kata'ib Hezbollah target in March following a rocket attack on Camp Taji that killed two U.S. troops: Army Spc. Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, said the airstrikes on Kata'ib Hezbollah were meant to prevent further attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, yet shortly afterward three more U.S. service members were wounded in another rocket attack on Camp Taji.

Since then, the U.S. military has consolidated its footprint in Iraq by moving troops off of smaller Iraqi bases.

“We’re going to do what we need to do in order to protect our force, to protect our embassy, to protect our troops in Iraq,” Milley said. “We have a mission to accomplish and the 82 is America’s guard of honor and will continue to do the mission until such time as we think the threat has subsided.”