The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), known as the “Sky Soldiers,” is a United States Army airborne infantry brigade combat team stationed in Vicenza, Italy. The United States European Command’s airborne strategic response team for Europe, the ABCT has a long history with several important military campaigns dating back to its inception in 1915.
Originally activated as the 173rd Infantry Brigade, the unit first saw action in World War 2 but gained notoriety for its missions in the Vietnam War.
The 173rd was the United States Army’s initial ground unit deployed in Vietnam and served from 1965 to 1971. The unit had a notable presence in both Operation Hump and Operation Junction City, but the Battle of Dak To was to become their greatest test since their formation. The 173rd and the North Vietnamese were in close combat throughout the Dak To campaign, with the Americans suffering about 1,800 casualties. Over 7,500 decorations were awarded to the troops within the 173rd, including 6,000 Purple Heart recipients.
The 173rd Brigade returned to the United States in 1972, and the force was disbanded.
The brigade was restructured with the 1st and 2nd Battalions and 503rd Infantry units merging into the 3rd Brigade. The 3rd Battalion, Airborne Division, and the 319th Field Artillery units became a part of the Division Artillery of the 101st, and the remaining units were deactivated. The brigade was reactivated in 2,000 and served five tours supporting the War on Terror in the Middle East. 2003 saw the 173rd participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom as part of the preliminary invasion of Iraq, followed by four tours supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2013.
In 2006, the 173rd Airborne Brigade became the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team as a result of the Army’s restructuring program. The newly created ABCT could now deploy its units and be self-supporting thanks to the recently developed support teams that were a part of the restructuring. The headquarters remained in Vicenza, and the brigade would go on to serve the rest of its Afghanistan tours until returning to the United States in 2014.
After their return in 2014, four paratrooper companies of the ABCT were deployed to support NATO forces in protecting the borders of Ukraine against Russia. As part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the companies were followed later that year by troops from the 2nd Battalion and other units as part of the Rapid Trident exercises. By 2015, another 1,000+ troops from the 173rd, including 600 paratroopers, would arrive in Ukraine for exercises, training, and support. Today, the 173rd Airborne Combat Team consists of over 3,000 troops supported by seven subordinate battalions and has the distinction of being the only airborne brigade in the Army.