For decades, the Army has kept a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division on round-the-clock alert, poised to respond to a crisis anywhere in 18 to 72 hours.
Today, the so-called ready brigade is no longer so ready. Its soldiers are not fully trained, much of its equipment is elsewhere, and for the past two weeks the unit has been far from the cargo aircraft it would need in an emergency.
Instead of waiting on standby, the First Brigade of the 82nd Airborne is deep in the swampy backwoods of this vast Army training installation, preparing to go to Iraq. Army officials concede that the unit is not capable of getting at least an initial force of several hundred to a war zone within 18 hours, a standard once considered inviolate.
The declining readiness of the brigade is just one measure of the toll that four years in Iraq — and more than five years in Afghanistan — have taken on the United States military. Since President Bush ordered reinforcements to Iraq and Afghanistan in January, roughly half of the Army's 43 active-duty combat brigades are now deployed overseas, Army officials said.