On a chilly Thursday morning, III Corps leadership carefully rolled up the colors of the Phantom Warriors in preparation for the unit’s deployment to Afghanistan.

More than 560 soldiers will spend the next year in Afghanistan to oversee the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command Headquarters in Kabul.

During the ceremony at the III Corps Headquarters flagpole, corps commander Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, who assumed command in December, said it is a tremendous honor for him to lead this unit into combat.

“This is a pivotal time in Afghanistan’s history,” Milley said. “The sacrifices that our nation has made and will make this year will bring an end to decades of human suffering.”

Beginning to end

While this will be the Phantom Corps’ first time in Afghanistan, it will be Milley’s third tour to the war-torn country. He said he was there 12 years ago for the beginning of the war, and highlighted the improvements the country has seen since then.

“It’s remarkable,” he said. “Going back to the beginning, we walked into a society that was shattered, utterly shattered. And there were no businesses, no traffic. ... It was a shell of a city.

“Today, 12 years (later) and it’s a huge difference. If you were to go to Kabul today, there would be traffic jams, vehicles all over the place, you would see small businesses all over the street, vendors and corporations,” Milley said.

In 2001, Milley said 900,000 children attended school. In 2011, 8 million children were in school, 40 percent of which were girls. Four thousand schools have been built and 140,000 teachers hired. There are now 17 universities, as opposed to just two in 2001.

The Afghan National Security Forces the corps will be training over the next year were nonexistent in 2001. Now the army and police force is 352,000 strong, Milley said.

Active war

Despite all the progress, he said it is still a combat environment.

“We are still at war in Afghanistan,” Milley said. “There’s an active insurgency there that’s trying to kill and murder Afghans and disrupt the society and prevent the Afghan government from becoming a democracy and providing the services that the Afghan people need.

“I think the biggest challenge in the near term will be to keep pressure on the insurgent and terrorists operating in Afghanistan to give the people of Afghanistan a chance.”

One of the key tasks of the corps will be to help prepare the country for an election in April 2014.

“During the coming year, III Corps will ensure the Afghans are ready to defend their democracy,” Milley said. “Our functions will primarily be to support the Afghan security forces to maintain security during the election.”

Retired Gen. Robert Shoemaker, a former III Corps commander, attended the casing ceremony to show his support.

“The folks that are going over, and the job they’re going to do, it makes me feel good the United States is still trying to see this thing through, and I know the Third Corps is going to do very well for us and the nation. I’m very proud,” he said.

This is the sixth deployment for the corps, which was created in 1918. Its guidon has battle streamers from Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, Meuse-Argonne, Champagne 1918 and Lorraine 1918 campaigns during World War I.

It deployed to the European theater again for World War II and then to Vietnam. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the corps has traveled twice to Iraq.

Contact Rose L. Thayer at rthayer@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.

Rose L. Thayer is the military editor for the Killeen Daily Herald. She joined the paper in February 2011 as a health and military reporter. View her complete profile Here.

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