When more than 1,700 paratroopers left Fort Bragg for Iraq late last year, they knew that the fight to free Mosul would be one of their top priorities.
It was a question of when, not if, the major city in northern Iraq would be liberated from the Islamic State, officials said.
On July 10, Iraqi leaders officially declared ISIS defeated in Mosul. But Col. J. Patrick Work, who commands the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, said the work isn't over.
In the roughly seven months since the 2nd Brigade deployed, the unit's numbers have swelled to more than 2,100 paratroopers deployed to Iraq.
Col. J Patrick Work (left). (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Anthony Hewitt)
It is the largest contingent among the thousands of Fort Bragg soldiers serving as part of an international coalition to defeat ISIS. That coalition is led by Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.
On July 10, Work said the Falcon Brigade can be proud of its efforts to defeat ISIS through advising and assisting its Iraqi partners.
A few years ago, officials said the Iraqi army was largely defeated — broken, dispirited, and pushed to the gates of Baghdad. Today, it is celebrating a major victory.
"Our mission, the reason we matter, is to help the Iraqi Security Forces win," Work said. "The fight continues, but they have dominated ISIS in Mosul. The key now is establishing a durable security that enables governance to extend its reach."
U.S. Army Col. J Patrick Work greets residents in a recently-liberated neighborhood in west Mosul, Iraq, July 2, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)
While Iraqi forces have been at the forefront of the victory, American paratroopers have played no small role in the success.
"It's been hard, violent work every day," Work said of fighting in Mosul. "The Iraqi Security Forces have fought doggedly to take terrain from ISIS and liberate the people of Mosul. ISIS had years to prepare its defense, and it gave nothing away. Our partners took it from them, and we've been helping them attack. At the same time, we are extraordinarily proud of our partners. They assume the lion's share of the physical risk, but we attack a common enemy together. Their success is our success."
When the brigade's soldiers arrived in Iraq, the battle to defeat ISIS was still raging in east Mosul, Work said.
Now, that part of the city is thriving "despite being just over five months removed from intense ground combat."
U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Erik Salo, deployed in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve and assigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, observes a sniper course led by Iraqi Federal Police partners near Mosul, Iraq, June 7, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Heidi McClintock)
Work said the brigade's paratroopers gave invaluable support to their Iraqi counterparts, advising and assisting ground commanders and providing artillery fires, intelligence, and logistical support.
As the fight moved to west Mosul, the paratroopers moved with their Iraqi counterparts, inching closer to the embattled city.
"We helped decimate a formidable ISIS mortar and artillery force in west Mosul," Work said. "We helped destroy ISIS infantry, logistics, and suicide car bombs so that our partners could continue to attack on the hard days. We were with the commanders calling the shots, delivering fires that helped them dominate, and we always put them first. Every day and every night."
Townsend congratulated Iraqi forces on July 10 for their "historic victory against an evil enemy."
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ethan Hutchinson)
"The Iraqis prevailed in the most extended and brutal combat I have ever witnessed," he said.
As commander of Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve, Townsend is the top general overseeing the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He's one of several hundred 18th Airborne Corps soldiers who form the core of the anti-ISIS headquarters.
Several other Fort Bragg units, including the 1st Special Forces Command, are also deployed in support of the campaign.
Townsend spoke to members of the media via a video feed from Baghdad.
Fort Bragg paratroopers in action. (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. Steven Galimore)
He said ISIS has now lost its capital in Iraq and its largest population center held anywhere in the world. That's a decisive blow to ISIS and something for Iraqis to celebrate.
Townsend said forces also are making progress against ISIS in Syria, where partner forces working with American and coalition troops have surrounded ISIS's capital of Raqqa.
The general said ISIS would fight hard to keep that city, much as it did in Mosul.
"Make no mistake, it is a losing cause," he said.
Townsend said Iraqi forces have a plan in the works to continue to pursue ISIS in other parts of the country. He said he doesn't anticipate any decrease in US troops in Iraq following the liberation of Mosul.
Iraqi security force members and Coalition advisors share information. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)
American forces, including those from Fort Bragg, are expected to play a key role in those efforts.
While the city of Mosul is now firmly under the control of Iraqi forces, Work said, no one will be celebrating too long.
"A lot of hard work remains. The Iraqi Security Forces will continue to attack the remnants of ISIS, search for caches, and free the people of west Mosul," he said. "The transition for the Iraqis to consolidate their gains is critical now. It requires detailed intelligence, organization, and logistics. Our paratroopers will continue to give our best advice, help our partners attack ISIS, and keep enabling their operations."
The 2nd Brigade deployed seven battalions to aid in the anti-ISIS fight. Most of the soldiers are involved in providing security or advising their Iraqi counterparts.
But, Work said, all soldiers contributed to the efforts and successes of the unit.
Troops from 82nd Airborne Division speak with Iraqi Federal Police members in Mosul, Iraq, June 29, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Rachel Diehm)
"All seven of our battalion teams have been tremendous. 37th Engineer Battalion has run a major staging base that is the hub of all logistics for a very decentralized coalition adviser network," he said. "407th Brigade Support Battalion assists the Iraqis with advancing their own logistics while also sustaining and maintaining our adviser teams. Finally, the 2nd Battalion of the 319th Field Artillery devastated ISIS's once-formidable mortar and artillery battery."
Work also said the brigade has relied on junior soldiers to step up and fill important roles in the fight.
"We have a junior intelligence analyst, Spc. Cassandra Ainsworth, who is brilliant. We rely heavily on her thinking, on her analysis, and synthesis when we are making major recommendations to Iraqi generals," he said. "We also have a junior signal soldier, Spc. Malik Turner, whom I count on daily to keep us connected securely in very austere environments. He is exceptional."
Work said the brigade was the "right team at the right time" to help in Iraq.
US Army 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. (U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Rachel Diehm)
"There is a lot of hard work ahead, but the Falcons — some of the best trained, best equipped, and best led paratroopers in the world — helped the Iraqis win in Mosul," he said.
With the city liberated, Work said, the soldiers' attention will turn to securing those gains, improving the Iraqi forces, and taking the fight to ISIS forces in other parts of the country.
"The first priority is helping the Iraqis sink in their hold on west Mosul, helping them set conditions that allow the government to start delivering services and political goods," he said. "Mosul is also a major battle in a much broader campaign to eliminate ISIS, and the fight continues. We will continue to give our best military advice, but the government of Iraq will decide the next objective. Whatever they decide, we are confident that we will continue to help them attack our common enemy."