FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Soldiers from Fort Campbell, Ky., have been instrumental players in Operation Enduring Freedom since the beginning of America’s War on Terror, and now their contribution will be even greater.
Up to 2,500 men and women from this post are being deployed to Afghanistan, where the Army’s elite 101st Airborne will guard the airport outside the captured city of Kandahar.
The move comes as the U.S. military officials announced Friday that the Marines are closing their "Camp Rhino" desert base in southern Afghanistan and transferring control of the Kandahar airport to the Army's 101st Airborne.
The deployment of the 101st, the military's most visible troop movement in Afghanistan, signifies a noteworthy shift in U.S. strategy. Like the Marines, the 101st is a rapid-moving force, able to be deployed anywhere in the world within 36 hours.
But the 101st is trained to secure territory for longer stretches.
During the Gulf War, the 101st pulled off the deepest air assault ever in enemy territory, and its leaders believe the landscape in Afghanistan is similar to what it saw in Iraq, as well as in other operations in Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
The fighters of the 101st say the war against Al Qaeda will be long and hard fought, and they’re ready for anything.
"I've got good buddies on my left and right and in front of me and above me," one soldier said. "I'm not worried about anything. I'm just worried about going over there, staying safe, coming back home."
Capt. Stewart Upton, in announcing that the Marines were leaving Camp Rhino, said that the 101st Airborne's advance guard had arrived at the airport, and the 26th Marines Expeditionary Unit would be packing up and returning to bases aboard U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea. No schedule was given.
Also, another 25 prisoners, mostly Afghans, arrived at the Kandahar airport for eventual transfer to prisons outside Afghanistan. So far, Upton said, some 250 suspects are being held at the prison, which he said is being prepared for up to 400.
The airport is intended as a transit point. Upton said there has been no formal announcement about the prisoners' eventual destination.
Camp Rhino is 35 miles south of Kandahar at an airstrip built by a wealthy Arab sheik who used it for hunting trips.
Upton said the camp has become redundant now that the military is entrenched at the airport. The Marines have finished their job securing the location for the army to take over, he said.
Though security has been constant, Upton said soldiers are on varying levels of alert depending on the threat. If the base learns of a possible Taliban or Al Qaeda presence, the security alert is raised to the maximum.
At the Kandahar airport, built by the United States in the early 1970s, American military personnel have tried to make themselves comfortable and make their environment a little more like home.
Anne Smerekanicz, a soldier from Bridgewater, Conn., was putting up rolls of messages collected by people in the United States. She said 2,770 feet of messages were delivered to soldiers at the base.
The messages had been collected over the course of several months. "Happy Halloween," said one. And another: "Stay safe and stay out of trouble."
Most expressed an even more basic sentiment: "Thank you." They wished the forces well and prayed for their safety and quick return home.
Fox News' Jeff Goldblatt and The Associated Press contributed to this report.