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Secretary of defense welcomes 18th Airborne soldiers back to Fort Bragg

Lloyd J. Austin III, visits the Army post where he was once commander of the corps


U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited Fort Bragg on Tuesday, the first time he has visited the post since his appointment to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet on Jan. 22, 2021.

The 69-year-old Austin was expected to welcome home 300 members of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg from their deployment to Europe as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine lingers, according to the Department of Defense.

The full corps returned to Fort Bragg on Monday after nine months in Germany.

Austin is a former commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and served in several capacities with the 82nd Airborne Division.

In front of the headquarters of the corps Tuesday, Austin arrived in a chauffeured, black Ford SUV that led a six-vehicle entourage.

Greeting the secretary of defense first was Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, the commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.

Austin did not speak to reporters on hand for his arrival and was quickly escorted into the headquarters, acknowledging soldiers along the way. Austin was not scheduled to field questions from journalists on Tuesday.

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During his visit to his former stomping grounds, the Department of Defense said, Austin “will receive unit briefings, conduct troop engagements and host a spouse roundtable.”

He also was scheduled to recognize some soldiers and spend some time meeting with Donahue and others throughout the afternoon. Austin was not expected to stay overnight, said Sgt. Maj. Alex Licea.

Reporters were not allowed to sit in on Austin’s activities.

His wife, Charlene, a graduate of Fayetteville State University, accompanied him on the trip.

The recent deployment was the first to Europe since World War II for the 18th Airborne and Fort Bragg, according Army officials.

In February, more than 300 soldiers deployed from Fort Bragg to Wiesbaden, Germany. Austin directed the deployment as a response to heightened security in Eastern Europe and to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank.

Sgt. Erin Conway, 26, was among the 300 soldiers who returned on Monday. Conway and two other soldiers, Maj. Nicole Collins and Staff Sgt. Thomas Tran, met with reporters to talk about the deployment.

“It was wonderful to be back,” Conway said. “It was great to be a part of something so historic and so impactful. But coming home to my family, to my friends and to my boyfriend, whom I missed very much — it was just an incredible feeling."

What affected her most about being deployed to Europe was “the partnership we have with our allies there, watching everyone come together in such a rapid time to work together to just assure each other and assure our NATO allies,” said Conway, who is a public affairs specialist.

This marked her first deployment.

“I absolutely do think this is a worthwhile mission,” she said. “And I was really grateful to be a part of it and grateful to be part of the 18th Airborne Corps.”

In terms of the secretary of defense's visit to Fort Bragg, Conway said it was “wonderful (that) he's coming out here to meet the soldiers that recently redeployed, and we're all just excited to be here.”

Tran, who is 30 and a construction engineer for the Army, wrapped up his second deployment after returning from Germany. He has served in the Army for 11 years.

“It went well. I learned a lot,” Tran said. “It's nice to see the impact, not only for myself or my sections but the entire unit. And the United States as a whole has positive impact all over Europe.”

Standing next to Tran was Margaret, his wife. Asked if she is proud of her husband, she replied with a big smile, “Absolutely. How can I not be?”

Thomas Tran said he likes to cook and spent much of his down time cooking.

“Being able to bring together a large group of people through food, I feel that's a great way to help each other bond. Everybody loves food,” he said. “Everybody loves trying new food, experiencing new food. And it kind of, for me, takes away that homesick feeling that I have. I didn't know it was the same way for a lot of the other younger troops here.”

He said deployment is “stressful, to say the least.”

“Lots of long hours, early mornings, late nights. You never really get off work,” he said. “There are down times, but when something arises, you've got to be prepared. But it was nice to be able to be there with a group of phenomenal soldiers. Everybody played a vital role. Everybody depended on each other. I couldn't be more proud of my team for doing what we did over there.”

Like Conway, Tran said he was expecting to have a chance to meet with Austin.

“I'm very excited. It's a very big opportunity,” he said. “And I know that not everybody gets that chance every single day to be with the secretary of defense and his wife. I'm very honored to have that opportunity to interact with him, just have a conversation with him.”

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com.

Fayetteville, Fort Bragg, military, Lloyd Austin, 18th Airborne Corps