Several small groups of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division have deployed in early 2017, bound for the Middle East and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
That fight, according to U.S. officials, includes the "most significant urban combat to take place since World War II."
"It is tough and brutal," Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said from Baghdad late March, describing the ongoing operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS.
"House by house, block by block fights. Despite that, the Iraqi Security Forces continue to press ISIS on multiple axes, presenting them with multiple dilemmas. We know the enemy cannot respond to this. Tough fighting in one sector provides the opportunity for other elements to advance in other areas, and that's what the Iraqi Security Forces have been doing."
Townsend is the commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, known as Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve. He's also the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Branden Quintana and Sgt. Cory Ballentine, both 82nd Airborne Division, pull security with M4 carbines on the roof of an Iraqi police station in Habaniyah, Anbar province, Iraq, July 13, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Kissta Feldner/Released)
The coalition he leads includes dozens of countries making varied contributions to the fight. The 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team is a key contributor among U.S. forces, with more than 1,800 paratroopers deployed in support of an advise-and-assist mission, training and equipping Iraqi forces before battle and providing intelligence, artillery support and advice during combat.
The latest 82nd Airborne troops to deploy in support of the fight are also from the unit, known as Falcon Brigade. Although they are not expected to remain in country for the entirety of what's left of the nine-month deployment.
Army leaders first discussed the additional deployments last month, when a three-star general told members of Congress up to 2,500 soldiers from the brigade could join the rest of their unit on the deployment.
But officials have said more recently that it's unclear if that number will be called forward. Instead, smaller groups — such as the two companies of about 200 soldiers who left Fort Bragg last Tuesday — have been deployed.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via telephone last week, Townsend said ISIS was causing massive human suffering and would continue to do so if the Iraqi forces and their coalition partners do not prevail.
"Our enemy, ISIS, are evil and murderous butchers, engaged in purposeful and mass slaughter," he said. "There are countless mass graves surrounding Mosul. ISIS put those bodies in there...the savages that are ISIS deliberately target, terrorize, and kill innocent civilians every day. The best and fastest way to end this human suffering is to quickly liberate these cities and Iraq and Syria from ISIS."
Townsend said officials have observed civilians fleeing ISIS-held buildings. They've heard reports that ISIS was shooting civilians trying to leave Mosul. Iraqi forces have reported houses filled with hostages and rigged to explode.
"This is a difficult and brutal fight on multiple fronts," he said. "...it is the toughest and most brutal phase of this war and...the toughest and most brutal close quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 year of service."
"ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis," Townsend added. "ISIS is cutting off heads. ISIS is shooting people, throwing people from buildings, burning them alive in cases, and they're making a video record to prove it. This has got to stop. This evil has got to be stamped out."