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For US soldiers, repeat deployments 'definitely take a toll'

The Third Infantry Division is used to being deployed. Now, after multiple deployments to Iraq, the 3rd ID has been sent to Afghanistan for the first time. NBC's Lester Holt reports.

KABUL – “How many deployments for you? Iraq, Afghanistan or both?”

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In an army that’s been waging war in Afghanistan for 11 years, talking about past deployments is what amounts to small talk on the many bases I’ve visited this past week from Kabul to Kandahar, as well as along the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan. Soldiers rattle off the dates and locations of their deployments, and point out fellow soldiers with whom they served.

The Army’s Third Infantry Division moved its headquarters recently from its home base at Fort Stewart, Ga., to Kandahar, Afghanistan. The move marked the division’s first deployment to Afghanistan, but it’s fifth to a war zone in the last 10 years. 

The Third Infantry Division made history in 2003 when it kicked off the war in Iraq as the so-called “tip of the spear,” driving up from Kuwait straight into Baghdad in what veterans remember as the “Thunder Run.”

Sgt. First Class Joseph Aiello says he couldn’t imagine back then that he would be in Afghanistan nine years later, still fighting a war.  When the Iraq war began, he was dating his sweetheart Terri. Today they are parents to three small children. Aiello has been on four of the division's five deployments since 2003.

“It definitely takes a toll on family,” Aiello told me. He added, however, that worrying about home and family when you are in a war zone has its risks.

“The minute you lose focus that’s when incidents can start to happen,” said Aiello. “You need to maintain focus while you’re here to do a job and that’s what we will get done.”

The  Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd touches base with NBC reporters across the Mid-East including NBC's Atia Abawi in Kabul, Martin Fletcher in Tel Aviv, Ali Arouzi in Tehran and Ann Curry from the Syrian border.

Serving on the home front, too
Back in Georgia, Aiello’s wife, Terri, makes her own contribution to the war, as a physical therapist assistant helping wounded vets. At home she has become accustomed to living the life of a single mom.

Photo Blog: Exploring home abroad: Afghan-Americans in Kabul

“A bad day would be having a stressful day [at work] and then going home and the boys are fighting, Alyssa’s cranky and the homework’s not done,” she said about her three children.

She’s learned to push ahead alone. “Nothing really changes. It’s just that he’s not there to experience everything with us.” 

Her sacrifices are not lost on her husband.

“A lot of people say that the soldiers got a hard job and everything like that. But the way I look at it, sir, is I definitely think the wives have the hardest job in the Army,” Aiello told me.

‘No different’
Aiello is one of only a handful of Third Infantry Division soldiers with the unit today who were part of the original march into Baghdad back in 2003. The division’s pace of deployments over the last 10 years is nothing short of remarkable, but no more remarkable than the multiple deployments that have become the norm for thousands of U.S. service members.

Eleven years of war have left tens of thousands of service families, like the Aiellos, sharing the void of long and too frequent separations.

Maj. Gen. Robert Abrams, commanding general of the Third Infantry Division and the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command-South, underscored the point.

“There are others making equal sacrifices across the army, so we don’t see ourselves any different,” Abrams said.

Anwarullah / Reuters

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

Aiello recalled the long wait for letters from home in those early days following the Iraq invasion. Now he does video chats with his family regularly via Skype, which didn’t exist in 2003.

On the TODAY Show this weekend, dozens of service members crowded around our broadcast location here at the joint task force headquarters for ISAF in Kabul. Many of them carried signs with pictures of the children whose birthdays, and sweet-16 parties they are missing back home.

A suicide bomber in Afghanistan kills at least 14 people, including 3 NATO service members, bringing the US death toll on the ground to 2,000 with 20 percent of American combat deaths stemming from insider attacks. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

The international coalition has set the end of 2014 to withdraw most combat forces from Afghanistan. In the meantime, the United States will continue to ask a lot from so few. The troops and the families will wait for them to return one day and stay home for good.

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