FORT BENNING, GA - On the eve of a fourth deployment to Iraq in seven years, the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team cased its colors Wednesday at Kelley Hill's Sledgehammer Field.

Just 16 months removed from its last homecoming, the unit is sending 3,600 Soldiers into five provinces south of Baghdad. About 700 Soldiers took part in the 30-minute casing ceremony.

"You're in the presence of history ... because you live it so often," MG Tony Cucolo, the 3rd Infantry Division's commanding general, told the crowd. "I hope the Army knows how lucky she is to have Soldiers like the ones in formation before us ... This 3rd (Heavy) Brigade Combat Team is one hard outfit."

The battle streamers rolled up Wednesday by unit leaders included three from Iraq. It now becomes the first Army brigade to deploy there four times.

"Not too many units can say that," Cucolo said. "It's been a treadmill of deployments for us. It's hard on the Soldiers and hard on our families ... We do not take your support for granted."

He said the casing is mostly "symbolic," but the ceremony readies the colors for movement and pays tribute to the brigade's rich history.

"It marks the starting clock of deployment," the general said. "It's a visual for everyone."

The brigade's lineage is built on the "sacrifice of those who have gone before us," said COL Pete Jones, the 3rd HBCT commander. During the first three Iraq rotations, which spanned 42 months, the unit lost 70 Soldiers while more than 200 were wounded.

"As we case these colors, the past and future successes of the Sledgehammer Brigade cannot be mentioned without the selfless service of our families and the (tricommunity)," he said. "We cannot serve without their love and support."

The ceremony stands as a symbol that the brigade is ready, Jones said.

"This is that last step. The colors are the embodiment of our heritage, but it's time to go and close this mission out," he said.

The brigade's mission this time couldn't be more different than the drive into Baghdad it spearheaded in March 2003, Cucolo said. The unit will primarily advise and assist Iraqi security forces.

"It's still an incredibly important fight," he said. "They are counting on us to finish this ... I see us as the closers for Iraq, and we take pride in knowing that."

By Christmas, the 3rd Infantry Division will have 14,000 Soldiers in either Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.

"We have this ceremony because we have a sense of history ... in this wonderful corner of southwest Georgia," Cucolo said. "I look forward to the day we can uncase these colors, right here on Kelley Hill."