FORT BRAGG, N.C. – As he exited the aircraft at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Brigade Commander Col. Phillip J. Kiniery III reflected on a deployment and a year full of accomplishments, challenges and changes.
Weeks before the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division deployed, and just days before taking command, Kiniery learned the entire mission changed.
“Well, now you know more about the deployment than I do,” said the unit’s previous commander to Kiniery. It was a candid conversation on the unexpected change the unit found itself in.
Three weeks later, the “Falcon Brigade” deployed amid the global COVID-19 pandemic to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the name given to the international coalition ensuring the continued defeat of ISIS.
“The story of the brigade, and its accomplishments, goes back to January 2020,” said Kiniery during a transfer of authority ceremony in Iraq. It was the unit’s last official act before returning home in which they passed responsibility to their replacements. “Your paratroopers, the select few of our country, started the year doing a rapid assumption of the nation’s Immediate Response Force (IRF). They were ready to go to Iraq following the attack on the U.S. Embassy in 2019. When they didn’t, the deployment was off, then on and finally delayed two months because of COVID-19.”
The Falcons’ sister unit, the 1st Brigade Combat Team, deployed to Baghdad after the 2019 U.S. Embassy attack. It was part of the IRF — a contingency element capable of deploying anywhere in the world in 18 hours. With 1st Brigade deployed, the Nation’s leaders called on the Falcons to reconstitute another IRF. For those tense, uncertain weeks following the Iranian missile strike on Al Asad Air Base, the Falcons thought they would soon deploy. The brigade balanced staying ready for a no-notice IRF deployment and its regularly scheduled spring rotation to OIR.
When tensions eased, it was clear the Falcons would deploy in the spring as planned.
In March 2020, 2nd Brigade was at the midpoint of its last training exercise before deploying when COVID-19 began to shut down the country. The Department of Defense delayed the deployment by two months. When the exercise ended, 2nd Brigade started to quarantine. Like the rest of America, the Paratroopers struggled to stay connected.
“It wasn’t difficult at first, but I have family that lives near Raleigh and Durham,” said Sgt. Cora Lawrence, a paratrooper with 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment. “So, not seeing them on weekends like I did before was hard. For others, I know quarantine was much more difficult. You use technology like FaceTime, but it doesn’t replace seeing friends and family face-to-face.”
With quarantine over, the Falcons returned to work to continue preparations for deploying. After returning to work and looking ahead to the deployment, 2nd Brigade picked up where it left off. The delay meant vehicles, equipment and containers had to return from the seaport. Paratroopers worked long nights to get everything ready, send it back to port and load on vessels bound for the Middle East.
Everything and everyone was set and ready for the deployment on the new timeline of summer. Before the Falcons could deploy, they had to complete another quarantine due to the new travel restrictions. As segments of the brigade started quarantine based on their different flight dates, Kiniery took command of the Falcon Brigade.
“I went into quarantine a week after taking command,” said Kiniery. “I found myself in an awesome opportunity to command this great brigade and deploy. Unfortunately, I had not had a chance to meet over half of them. Despite that, and all the other challenges, we deployed. That’s what the American people expect of the military. They trust us, and we won’t let them down.”
It wasn’t just the commander who was new. Summer is permanent change-of-station time for Army. It’s when people rotate out, move on to new assignments and new people arrive. Most of the unit’s senior leadership came less than two months before deploying.
Out of quarantine, the brigade deployed.
The Falcons arrived at Union III in Baghdad, Iraq — the forward headquarters for the coalition. Similar to everything that led them to this point, the Falcons came as OIR was changing. The combination of COVID-19 and the coalition’s partners' success presented an opportunity to move to the next stage in the campaign — Phase IV. It meant less coalition personnel and more advising centralized at higher levels in Iraq and Syria.
Just as the brigade was finding its way and carving out a path forward, it suffered a tragedy. Sgt. Bryan “Cooper” Mount, a paratrooper from the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, died in a vehicle rollover accident in Syria.
Those he served with described Cooper as having an unmatched sense of humor that could lighten up any situation. He was loved and still is loved by those who called him a friend.
While still mourning Cooper’s tragic loss, OIR’s leadership gave the brigade headquarters its new mission — take command of Erbil Air Base in the Kurdistan region. The brigade would have responsibilities throughout the area, which included Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. The Falcons secured bases in Iraq and Syria, worked alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces to protect oil infrastructure from ISIS capture and maintained a high-alert and always ready contingency force capable of reaching any base within hours of notification.
As the only brigade combat team supporting OIR, the unit was the go-to force to solve any problem. When the mission transitioned to Phase IV, it was the Falcons who would lead through the change. It meant fewer people, and after only a couple of months in the Middle East, the brigade sent home nearly 50 percent of its personnel, making it the first and largest unit in the Middle East to meet the prescribed troop strength.
“There was a lot of change in the mission and in those early months before we deployed. Sometimes it’s a good thing,” said Sgt. Nicholas Chavez, a paratrooper with the Headquarters Company. “We’re trained in the Army to adapt and overcome and that’s what we did.”
Throughout the deployment, anytime Iraq and Syria made news at home, the Falcons were there.
In Syria, a Russian military vehicle purposefully collided with Falcon Paratroopers in what social media users called “a Mad Max race across the desert.” Within hours, the viral video became national news back home. It demonstrated the complexity of the environment where so many actors, state and non-state, operated it was one negative encounter out of many neutral ones. In most incidents, the Russian military would drive past, wave and keep going. Incidents like this, which were quick garner international attention, demonstrated complexity in the environment paratroopers encountered.
Elsewhere in Syria, Falcons helped the Syrian Democratic Forces protect critical petroleum infrastructure. If ISIS could capture it, they could fund a resurgence. However, this critical effort is often misinterpreted by maligned actors in the region seeking to spur daily disinformation, insinuating the U.S. was stealing oil. It was all lies — part of an information war to undermine the brigade’s commitment to helping its partners protect the oil from falling into the hands of ISIS.
At a much more remote location, An Tanf Syria, 2nd Brigade worked alongside their local partner force to defend an isolated piece of land identified as critical terrain. The paratroopers faced harsh conditions in a vast, open desert, living and working around a handful of crumbling buildings.
When frequent rocket attacks occurred in Baghdad at the hands of groups labeled as outlaw militias, 2nd Brigade was there protecting U.S. and Coalition forces. They watched and followed closely as tension increased with claims the U.S. Embassy would close if attacks did not stop.
“It takes a tremendous amount of professionalism and maturity,” said Kiniery. “The Falcons were at the edge of the tactical level with implications that quickly could become strategic as fast as someone can post something online. I’m proud of them for fighting through that.”
The brigade provided security for Camp Taji's transfer to the Iraqi government, Camp Taji's, a training base near Baghdad and a symbol of the Coalition’s success in training thousands of Iraqi Security Forces. When the public ceremony, which included a co-signing between a U.S. and Iraqi representative, ended, the Falcons stayed a few more days to secure the movement of people and equipment. The Falcons were the last of U.S. troops to leave Camp Taji.
Before leaving, there was one more thing to do, which had a symbolic meaning to the brigade's history and legacy. Hanging on a wall in the base’s gym was a faded portrait of 1st Lt. Weston Lee, a paratrooper from 1st Battalion, 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who was killed by an improvised explosive device near Mosul during the unit’s last deployment to OIR in 2017. As people packed away equipment in those final days, a chaplain took the portrait and sought to find Lee’s unit. He was surprised to learn they were in Iraq. The 2nd Brigade paratroopers took the portrait home to offer to Lee’s family. Three years passed, and it hung there every day until the Falcons came back to Iraq.
“We are humbled that we will be able to transport 1st Lt. Lee’s memorial back to the United States and offer it to his family,” said Capt. Tyler Morgan, commander for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Now home, the paratroopers reunited with families, spouses, all who struggled without their presence amid the pandemic. It’s an unusual homecoming distorted because of COVID-19, in which quarantine awaits again. Those who are married quarantine at home and the single paratroopers are restricted to barracks rooms and specific locations on Fort Bragg until they can take leave and reunite with families.
“Our families are the backbone of this unit. We get to do what we love in serving our Nation because they love us,” said Kiniery.
For many paratroopers, they’re excited for quality time with family and friends. With the brigade whole again, it’s also an opportunity to meet new peers who arrived at the unit while others deployed. It’s a chance to build teams that will care for each other like family and prepare for when the Nation calls upon the Falcon Brigade next time.