CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Messages are already appearing on the facades and marquees of local businesses. Many in the community are excited.
About 17,000 soldiers — most of the 101st Airborne Division — are about to come home from war. Clarksville is ready to offer a warm welcome. "I'm excited for Clarksville," says Mayor-elect Kim McMillan. "They're a part of our community, and we want to do what we can."
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team "Rakkasans" begin their return from Afghanistan in January. The 1st and 2nd BCTs, the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade and the 101st headquarters will be home in the spring, the 4th BCT in the summer.
This return will be the largest since 2003, when most of the division returned from the initial invasion of Iraq. Before that, the largest return came after Desert Storm and Desert Shield in the Gulf War of 1990-91, when the entire division returned, according to John O'Brien, historian for the 101st.
The summer of 2010 was a lethal one for the 101st, which lost 41 soldiers in Afghanistan between March and August. Nearly 400 were wounded during that time. Overall this year, the Army division known as the Screaming Eagles, formed ahead of the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy, has lost 104 soldiers — or about 1 in 5 American deaths in Afghanistan. That is close to a toll of 105 deaths in Iraq during a 2005-06 deployment that was its deadliest year in combat since the Vietnam War.
By the time the 4th Brigade Combat Team deployed in August, the division's nearly 20,000 soldiers represented 20 percent of U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, who are battling Taliban and insurgent strongholds in advance of the planned withdrawal.
Managing the soldiers' return has become the prime focus of Maj. Gen. Frank Wiercinski, acting senior commander, since he arrived at Fort Campbell a few weeks ago. Wiercinski is overseeing the redeployment and reintegration of troops, a process he says Fort Campbell has down to a science. "It's master's-degree-level reintegration that we've reached," he says. "We've learned incredible lessons on how to do this."
McMillan has pledged a successful relationship with the officials on post to make sure Clarksville helps reintegrate these soldiers, who are an important part of the community fabric.
"I intend to do whatever is necessary to make sure Fort Campbell knows we're here to do whatever we need to support the Fort Campbell community," she says.
Though the redeployment is spread over five or six months, Wiercinski acknowledges that the sheer number of soldiers coming home, many of whom have been involved in fierce fighting in Afghanistan, will present challenges.
"It could be financial. It could be behavioral health," he says. "We've got a lot of soldiers coming home in a short period of time."