3,500 ‘Spartans’ deploy from JBER to Afghanistan

Multiple tours don’t make leaving easier, soldiers say


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Members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division sit during a ceremony held on Nov. 29 at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.

STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

Saying goodbye is hard.

And it doesn’t get any easier the more you say it. Just ask First Sgt. Aaron Spahl.

Spahl has been deployed overseas five times (twice to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan) and is about to leave for his fourth Afghan tour. Despite all his experience in the Middle East, leaving his family is just as difficult as Spahl’s first time overseas.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Spahl said. “You get used to it, but it doesn’t get any easier.”

Maj. Dale Papka can relate.

In fact, Papka’s fourth tour could be his most difficult. His 5-year-old daughter, Sydney, is old enough to understand she won’t be seeing her father for a long time.

“When I told her, ‘Daddy has to go away,’ that was hard,” Papka said. “It was kind of a rough separation.”

Spahl and Papka are two of about 3,500 troops in the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division stationed at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson who are deploying to Afghanistan for a year. Deployment started in late November and will continue into December.

Spahl said the process takes a few weeks to deploy the entire brigade, whose nickname is the “Spartans.”

A send-off ceremony for the troops was held on Tuesday, Nov. 29 at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.

 

Long travel day

The trip from Anchorage to Afghanistan takes between 18 and 24 hours, Spahl said.

“It’s about a day of flying,” he said.

That day is no different than flying anywhere else, Spahl said.

“There’s no jitters,” he said. “It’s just like flying from New York to San Francisco over and over for 24 hours crammed into a coach seat.”

Life overseas is much less hectic than the process of packing out the unit and moving its men, women and supplies, Spahl said.

“It’s easier because things are simpler,” he said. “You’re not worried about your car bill. You’re not worried about seeing the latest movie.”

How soldiers spend their time is decided for them, Spahl said.

“Your duties, they are what they are, and they take up most of your time,” he said.

 

Miss family most

Family is always on Spahl’s mind while overseas.

“The thing I miss most is my wife and kids,” he said.

He’ll also miss the “time to sit down and veg out,” he said.

The same goes for Papka.

His family tops the list of what he misses most while away. Second on Papka’s list are the “little things,” like being able to run to the store anytime he wants.

“You start to miss the small things,” Papka said.

 

New Jersey native

Spahl, originally from New Jersey, has been stationed at JBER since 2003. He joined the Army Rangers immediately after enlisting more than 15 years ago.

“If you’re gonna do it, you might as well go all the way,” Spahl said.

The same thinking was his reason for joining the Spartans.

“They’re the real deal,” he said.

 

First Afghan tour

It will be Papka’s first time in Afghanistan. He’s been to Iraq three times.

“I’m not worried at all about this trip,” Papka said. “I’ve got a great section.”

Papka, who’s been in the military for nearly a decade, came to JBER this summer from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His parents and grandparents served in the military.

“I just like what the Army is about,” Papka said. “It’s been a great career so far, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be for the next 10 years.”

Papka said his family is his greatest supporters, especially his daughter.

“She’s very proud her daddy is a soldier,” he said.

 

Supportive community

Alaska residents show more support for the military than anywhere Capt. Chase Spears has lived.

Before coming to Alaska eight months ago, Spears said Colorado Springs would have topped that list. But in Alaska, “It’s taken to a whole new level,” he said.

“You can’t find a place that doesn’t have a military discount,” Spears said.

He said he’s often overwhelmed by the level of support he sees on a daily basis.

“Every corner I turn there is someone doing something for service members,” he said. “I think it’s amazing.”

Spears said he’s fallen in love with the “Last Frontier” and plans to make Eagle River his home.

“I love the culture,” he said. “I love the way people take care of each other.”

Alaska’s large veteran population also appeals to Spears.

“They get what you do,” he said.

This will be Spears’ second tour overseas and first in Afghanistan. Spears said his last deployment was five years ago.

“I’m excited about it,” he said. “I think I’ll learn a lot.”

But, he added, returning to the Last Frontier is the ultimate goal.

“The best part for me is I get to return to Alaska.”

 

Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or mike.nesper@alaskastar.com

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