CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was an unusual homecoming for soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division. Instead of marching into a room full of eager family members on Fort Bragg, loved ones stood beside cars decked out with hand-painted signs, as buses carrying weary paratroopers fresh off a no-notice deployment to the Middle East drove by.
Most of the traditional welcome-back fanfare has been replaced with a mandatory 14 day quarantine. The measure is meant to protect from the spread of COVID-19.
This is certainly not the Fort Bragg soldiers left suddenly four months ago.
On New Years Eve, the division's Immediate Response Force was activated amid rising tension with Iran. Within days, more than three thousand paratroopers were deployed to the Middle East, some having just hours to say goodbye to loved ones.
On Friday evening, Sgt. Ashley Boutte waited patiently for her husband, Sgt. Lawrence Boutte, an Apache helicopter mechanic. She didn’t expect he’d be home in time for their first wedding anniversary in a few weeks. “It’s nothing but a blessing,” she told The Associated Press.
But for some soldiers, reunions will have to wait. For the next two weeks, paratroopers will be quarantined to follow Department of Defense guidelines. Those who live with family members off base will be allowed to hunker down in homes and apartments, but others are immediately being taken to a containment area on Fort Bragg.
They’ll have Wi-Fi and workout equipment. And while the situation isn’t ideal, public affairs officer Maj. Rich Foote said he hasn’t heard many complaints.
“It’s understood. This is what they’re coming home to, they get it,” Foote said.
Face masks and social distancing aren’t new concepts for these paratroopers. They were months into their deployment when CDC requirements reached their units spread out across Kuwait and Iraq.
It will take three weeks to bring the remaining 2,500 members of the Immediate Response Force back to North Carolina. Ashlee Matlock’s husband wasn’t in the group that arrived Friday night, but she’s expecting him soon.
“I’m so proud of my husband and all of the paratroopers because this is a historic event and for them to react without hesitation and jump into action, that makes my heart so proud,” she said.
Matlock calls herself lucky. Her husband had three days to prepare for his deployment, while others had a matter of hours.
First Brigade’s deployment marked the first time in three decades the IRF was mobilized into a combat situation.
While deployed, the division supported U.S. Central Command missions in both Iraq and Kuwait.
Boutte and her husband get to quarantine at home. She’s grateful to have two weeks to relax with the man she met at a Fort Bragg Bible study, shrugging off the fact that there wasn't a more formal welcoming event for the troops. “Just because there’s no ceremony doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely marvelous."