They might not get the respect conferred to their armored and infantry brethren, but after nearly a decade of war, the image of Fort Carson’s combat support soldiers has changed from shop-keeper to fellow warrior.

A unit fresh back from Afghanistan, the 68th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, issued more than 240 Combat Action Badges to its soldiers during a year at war that saw its troops running 60-hour convoys along bomb-littered roads to deliver supplies to embattled Marines.

“We’ve always been warriors,” said outgoing 68th commander Col. Tom Rivard.

A quick history lesson: From the nation’s founding, combat support troops have been considered part of the rear-echelon, doing their jobs far from the fight. When they ventured near the battle front, they generally required combat troops to defend them from the enemy.

A common phrase to describe these troops was “The guys in the rear with the gear.”

That has changed drastically in the past decade. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the concept of battle lines has been relegated to history amid an insurgency that can strike anywhere and has a special affinity for attacks on American supply convoys.

“You can’t even put a value on what they do,” said Fort Carson’s Command Sgt. Maj. John Kurak. “They operate outside their traditional roles.”

Soldiers of the 68th fought through enemy territory to deliver supplies to units in a 95,000 square-mile area including Helmand Province, one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous places.

Rivard said the combat missions put low-ranking soldiers in roles with great responsibility — convoys ferrying 100 soldiers and supplies were commanded by staff sergeants.

To get the job done, support units now have heavier weapons, improved intelligence-gathering capabilities and intensive training in how to fight through bombs and ambushes.

“We now have it all,” Rivard said. “We have the leaders and the equipment.”

The 68th also has plenty of experience. Since 2003, the unit has headed to war four times.

Often, the needs of the Army leave the 1,200-soldier unit fractured, with its companies of truck drivers, explosive experts and repair personnel scattered in Iraq and Afghanistan to support other combat units.

“They have to go and be experts,” said the 68th’s new commander, Lt. Col. Alanna Cook, who took over from Rivard last week.

The tough task, though, has brought out the best in the 68th’s soldiers, said Command Sgt. Maj. Colvin Bennet, who served as the battalion’s top enlisted soldier on its recent Afghanistan deployment.

“They are simply amazing,” Bennet said. “These soldiers get up early in the morning and they go to bed late. They’re the best in the military.”

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