In the darkness around Fort Bragg's York Theater, hundreds of families alternated between smiles and holding back tears.
Amid the conflicting emotions of a pending deployment, the paratroopers and their loved ones embraced. They posed for photographs. Then they said goodbye.
Roughly 270 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division left Fort Bragg late Wednesday, bound for Iraq and a key role in the ongoing fight to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as Operation Inherent Resolve.
The soldiers are the first large group from the brigade to deploy. Five more flights are scheduled over the next two weeks, each with from 250 to 350 paratroopers set to be on board.
In all, about 1,700 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade will deploy to Iraq and nearby Kuwait. They will fill a number of roles in those countries, helping the war effort logistically, training Iraqi forces and providing more direct advice and support to those on the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State.
The paratroopers will enter the fight at a pivotal time, leaders have said. Efforts to liberate Mosul – a key city in northern Iraq – from Islamic State control are well underway.
Iraqi forces are taking the lead in that fight, but American troops are providing support through air strikes, intelligence and artillery barrages, among other aid.
Sgt. Patrick Jones, a cannon crew member with the 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, said his fellow artillerymen expect to be busy.
“We're anticipating doing a lot of fire missions,” he said while waiting with his family outside the theater.
Jones, like many of his fellow soldiers, used Wednesday to spend a few final moments with those he loves ahead of the nine-month deployment.
Family members and senior leaders say farewell to their service members of 101st Combat Aviation Brigade prior to their deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at Fort Campbell, Ky.U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Tracy R. Myers.
With his parents, Don and Debbie Jones, in town from New Jersey, the family – including Jones' wife, Santana – went out for breakfast. They spent a quiet afternoon at home amid some last-minute packing.
The deployment is the first for Jones. And he said it helped put the holidays in greater focus.
“We ended up visiting both families – two states in four days,” Jones said.
His mother said the family celebrated Christmas early to ensure everyone was able to come together to be with Jones.
“We're trying to be strong,” she said.
“We're very proud of him, without a doubt,” Jones' father added. “We know he's going to do a good job.”
Santana said the family was going through many emotions, dreading his departure and anticipating his return.
“I can't wait for him to come home,” she said.
Loved ones say goodbye to 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers as they begin their trip to Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Donna Davis.
Jones said he was nervous, but also ready to go to work.
A similar sentiment could be found across the formation, which was comprised of soldiers from each of the brigade's battalions.
“We're as ready as we're going to be,” said Warrant Officer Donny Ravelo, who sat atop his bags alongside his wife, Amy.
Ravelo, who serves in the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, has deployed before, but will be doing so as a father for the first time.
He said it was a much different experience, preparing to leave behind the couple's young twins, who are just 21/2 years old.
“It's not tougher. It just makes it different,” he said.
The young family didn't travel for the holidays, preferring to spend more time together, Ravelo said.
In more recent days, he said he made several last-minute checks around the house, finishing up chores than needed to be done before he left.
By Wednesday, all that remained was the deployment itself.
“We're just waiting and waiting and waiting for it to actually finally happen,” Amy said.
Across the parking lot, 1st Lt. Suyapa Lopez stood with one child in her arms and another pulling on her uniform.
Lopez, who serves in the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, said she was unable to visit her family for the holidays because they live in Nicaragua.
But she spent Christmas with her boyfriend and his children, who also came to see her off at Fort Bragg.
“We tried to make it a little more special,” she said of this year's holiday celebrations.
Lopez said the paratrooper were ready. But said it was still difficult to say goodbye.
“I actually have not been nervous until today,” she said. “It just hit me that we're leaving.”
Brigade leaders said it was important to give the soldiers time with their loved ones ahead of the deployment.
Col. J. Patrick Work, the brigade commander, said there was no simple task ahead of them.
The soldiers will spend several weeks transitioning with the unit they are set to replace – 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.
To prepare, Work said leaders from the two units have been in near constant contact for months.
On Wednesday, Work made the rounds through the deploying troops, greeting soldiers and their families.
Taking care of the families the soldiers leave behind is one of the brigade's most important missions, leaders said.
Lt. Col. Elizabeth Curtis, the commander of the 407th Brigade Support Battalion, said leaders were making sure to keep families well informed with the most current information on the deployment.
Units hosted numerous forums for family members that included everything on living conditions and internet access for their soldiers to how to find services back at Fort Bragg or reach their soldier in the event of an emergency.
“For a lot of our soldiers and their families, this is their first deployment,” Curtis said.
She said ensuring families were taken care of was important not only for the soldiers, but for the unit's readiness as a whole.
Having families squared away means there is one less worry for those deployed in an environment where distractions can cost lives.
“We're here to take care of them,” Curtis said. “That's the biggest thing – preparing families.”
© 2016 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.