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Homecoming ceremony at Fort Drum marks end of one mission, possible start to another

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Julia Botero
/
WRVO
Soldiers returning from Afghanistan take part in a ceremony Monday at Fort Drum. (file photo)

Fort Drum commemorated the end of its combat role in Afghanistan Monday. Most of the 10th Mountain Division is now back for the holidays, but the U.S. Army will continue its mission in Afghanistan.

At Monday's welcome home ceremony, Annie Costellano-Rios chats with two women as they wait for band to start up. Her husband is a 10th Sustainment Brigade commander - the most recent to deploy to Afghanistan and one of the last to return.

"I'm glad they are home," Costellano-Rios said. "It was a long nine months, or 10 months actually, wasn't it?"

The ceremony marked an end of the Army's combat role in Afghanistan. But for Costellano-Rios, whose husband has deployed multiple times since September 11, Monday did not feel like an end to anything.

"It is not the last deployment, I can assure you of that," Costellano-Rios said. "There are going to be many more to come. There is still a lot of work to be done there."

Secretary of the Army John McHugh says a lot has already been accomplished during 13 years of war. He commends the courage and the resiliency of the soldiers of Fort Drum for helping make the world and nation safer.

"And because of men and women like each and every one of you, men and women of the 10th Mountain Division, the people of Afghanistan have a special gift," McHugh said. "It's the gift of a chance. A chance for freedom."

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the continued insurgence of Al Qaeda and the emergence of ISIS is a new, more complicated and complex form of terrorism.

"I would like to say it's over, welcome home and I'm sure there will be no other conflicts, but that's not true," Cuomo said.

When Fort Drum's Commanding General Stephen Townsend reflects on the past 13 years of his troop's combat In Afghanistan, he pauses and takes a deep breath.

"Blood, too much of that. Tears, too many of those. Frustration that we are not done yet," Townsend explained.

Starting January 1, the mission in Afghanistan will take on a new name, Operation Resolute Support. Townsend says plans are still uncertain, but he thinks there is a good chance Fort Drum will play a role in the next phase of war.

"Operation Resolute Support is going to require a team of advisors for the next couple of years and soldiers to secure and support them," Townsend explained. "So I think our division will be needed in the continuing training and advising and assisting role that we have already been doing, we'll just be doing it on a smaller scale."

The shift in the United States' role in Afghanistan also comes at a time when cuts to the Army are looming. McHugh says the 1,500 troops cut earlier this year were just the beginning, and if Fort Drum survives the next round of base closures, which he says is likely, it will still have to endure cuts like all other bases across the country.

"As our budgets continue to decline, and particularly if we are forced back into sequestration, we are going to have to take even more significant cuts," McHugh said. "No corner of the Army will escape the pain of this process."

More than 10,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan for the first three months of next year, more than previously planned. By the end of next year, the Pentagon says the U.S. troop total will shrink to 5,000 and to near zero by the end of 2016.