It's easy to forget that the U.S. military still has troops taking turns serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 13,000 of them are there now and as one group rotates in, another rotates out and the deployment cycles continue.
So as many around the country prepare for the holidays, some troops are preparing for deployment – like Army Sgt. Nathaniel Rivet in Fayetteville, N.C. He's among 1,700 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division's Second Brigade Combat Team who will soon be leaving for Northern Iraq. That means packing up 230 pounds of stuff.
Rivet has the things he'll need for the next nine months of his life spread across the floor of his tiny apartment near Fort Bragg – clothes, toiletries and military gear in neat stacks, and rows of Ziploc bags.
"What I like to do is pack my heavy items in the bottom," Rivet said, holding up a duffel bag the size of a big trash can.
Rivet, 26, is from Lewiston, Maine. He misses snow and skiing, and watching his younger brother play for his high school hockey team. But he loves the military life.
He packs carefully. He wants to be able to find toiletries in the dark, without waking up other soldiers. He spreads around essentials, so if one bag goes missing, he'll have duplicate items in another. And he includes small personal touches that he hopes will provide a morale boost if he needs it.
"I have waterproof socks," he said as he carefully inventoried the items spread around the room. "I toss a dryer sheet in with them to remind me of home when I open them up."
In another bag are Swedish Fish, the little chewy sweets.
"Candy is a good thing to distribute to the local populace, wins the hearts and minds of the kids," he said. "Also it's a good pick-me-up after a long day of patrol. You know putting a piece of candy in your mouth can really make your day."
He knows little things like that because this will be his third combat deployment. Rivet did two with the Marines in Afghanistan, and then left the service with the idea of going to college. But he missed the military, he missed the camaraderie, and he even missed deployments.
"When you're back home, all you can think about is going back on the next deployment," Rivet said. "And when you're on deployment, all you think about is going back home. It's kind of a weird cycle."
He really enjoys working directly with younger front-line infantry troops — mentoring, leading.
"You make some great friends overseas," he said. "You don't have the distractions of cell phones or social media. So you really invest a lot of time into your personal relationships, and you get to know people and understand them. And you make some just wonderful friends."
As Rivet continued packing, some of what he was putting in the duffels underlined that this isn't a vacation trip. There was body armor with plates that can stop a rifle bullet, a helmet, and a medical kit to deal with for serious trauma.
The danger of a deployment is something he doesn't think about much until he's on the transport plane leaving the U.S.
"That's when it kind of sinks in that it's real, this is actually happening," Rivet said. "You kind of start questioning, like, hey, maybe I shouldn't have put this on hold, like meeting someone or starting a family. Even though I'm 26 years old, there's a lot of life experiences I haven't really experienced yet."
Rivet's deployment isn't expected to include direct combat. Officially, the mission is called "training, advising, and assisting." The paratroopers are planning to help Iraqi forces fight ISIS, provide artillery and battlefield intelligence, and train them in advanced skills like clearing roads of improvised bombs.
But a new U.S. president, with different thoughts on how to handle ISIS, will take office within days of Rivet's arrival in Northern Iraq, and no one knows whether that will change the plans for the deployment.
"There's always the prospect of a change of mission," Rivet said. "I feel pretty confident that regardless of what's asked of us, we can meet the challenge."
The actual deployment date isn't public yet. It's supposed to be sometime after Christmas.
In the meantime, he's headed up to Maine to visit his parents for a quick holiday.
As he packs, Rivet said he thinks a lot about the phone conversations he'll have with his family while he's deployed.
"Just the tone of your voice goes a long way," he said. "Not telling your mom that you're going on patrol or you have a mission coming up, but focusing on, like, I'm learning how to strum on a guitar. Just more human type of activities."
Early the next morning, while it was still dark, Rivet's brigade of more than 4,000 soldiers met on Fort Bragg for one last run before some of them left for Iraq. There was pump-up music, some intense tug-of-war and remarks by the brigade commander, Col. Patrick Work.
"It doesn't matter what your world view is," Work shouted. "You put yourself, your own ideas, on the back burner. And you do what the nation needs you to."
Later, Rivet stepped out of the crowd to answer one last question: What do civilians he talks to, like back in Maine, think about the deployments?
"At the end of the day, it doesn't bother me that the majority of the American public isn't really aware of our deployment," he said. "We understand why we have to be over there and who we're assisting, and at the end, that's all that matters."
And then he stepped back into his unit – one of 1,700 soldiers about to be deployed. People who will miss their moms and their friends and watching their kid brothers play hockey. And even the smell of fresh laundry.
This story is part of a project we're calling "Back at Base," in which NPR — along with public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live.