AT THE IRAQ/KUWAIT BORDER — The last brigade of U.S. combat troops crossed into Kuwait on Thursday in a largely symbolic nod to President Barack Obama’s Aug. 31 deadline for ending combat operations in Iraq.
But little is expected to change for troops on the ground.
“The Last Patrol,” elements of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, drove to the border while protected by F-16 fighters and Black Hawk helicopters above, and on the ground by an Iraqi army they helped build and some of the 50,000 U.S. troops who remain in the country until the end of 2011 to train Iraqi forces.
They leave behind an uncertain Iraq battered by war, divided and bloodied by sectarian strife and still struggling to form a government months after its second democratic postwar election. They will return home to a country uneasy with the legacy of the war that left more than 4,400 American troops dead and cost more than $748 billion to fight.
For troops still in Iraq, the mass rollout was little more than a media event. The U.S. military has been shifting away from offensive operations for months as Iraqis have taken over the bulk of security responsibility, so the transition should be seamless.
“I think we are in our Sept. 1 mode now,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq.
U.S. commanders say there will be more of an emphasis on training and advising, as evidenced by the newly minted “advise and assist” brigades, which replace the combat brigades.
But some of the new “advisers” are simply combat troops whose unit names have been changed, including an entire combat brigade in Mosul being recast on Sept. 1 as an advise and assist brigade.
“It is symbolic,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior national security strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former intelligence director at the Pentagon. “And in some ways, it is about as accurate a picture of the U.S. role in Iraq as the “Mission Accomplished” poster was on the carrier. Except in this case we actually know what we’re going to do next.
“We have basically gotten into semantics. The six advisory brigades are more or less standard combat brigades tailored to the mission … as it’s changed.”
Outside of Iraq’s major cities, U.S. troops will still go on “civil security patrols” with their Iraqi counterparts in missions that will look much like those termed “combat patrols” just a few months ago. If U.S. troops see insurgents placing a roadside bomb, they can kill them in the name of “force protection,” a military term for protecting troops and installations.
And both special forces and regular troops will still conduct counterterrorism operations, which includes going after suspected insurgents in raids when they get solid intelligence.
“We are not going to sit around on our bases,” Cucolo said.
Adding to the fog, while Thursday’s media-heavy convoy was meant to illustrate the end of combat operations, they won’t actually end until Aug. 31.
After NBC’s Richard Engel went live from the convoy to report he was with the last combat troops to leave Iraq, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman disputed the assertion, noting that the combat mission there does not end until the end of the month.
As of Thursday, there were still 56,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The movement of troops began before dawn Sunday, when nearly 2,000 4th Stryker Brigade soldiers were divided into four huge convoys of some 300 Strykers to head south from Baghdad. For four nights, each group loaded the gear, music, laptops and guns they wanted and needed within reach for their last days in Iraq. They also carried extra diesel and belts of .50-caliber ammunition. The troops also stocked up on beef jerky, powdered Gatorade, case of water and Rip It energy drinks — the basics of a soldier’s diet in this seven-year war.
The truck carrying the brigade’s commander sergeant major, Jeffrey Huggins, was one of the last to cross, ferrying a crew of infantry soldiers ready to go home.
Soldiers exhausted from the two-day journey — many only got two to three hours’ sleep over two days — were suddenly energized to finish up.
The brigade commander, Col. John Norris, had gone on the second leg of the convoy, arriving a day earlier. He met the last of the troops at the border.
“It’s the end of a long year,” said Norris, after embracing Huggins. “I got all my kids safely to Kuwait. You sit a little uneasy until everyone is in Kuwait. Now I can relax a little bit.”
There were no bombs or attacks during the operation, and Norris gave credit to the safe journey to Iraqi forces who worked for days to ensure no bombs were hidden on the route.
“We coached and mentored that,” Norris said. “I don’t think you could ask for better partners.”
For many in the brigade, “The Last Patrol” felt like victory after seven years of the heat, danger and hard memories from the war and then the occupation that began with the March 2003 invasion.
“What I’m trying to tell my kids is that seven years of war is ending on their watch,” Norris said before the journey began. “They’ve created opportunity for the Iraqi people. ... That’s powerful.”
“We’re the winners in Iraq,” Sgt. 1st Class Robert Hord, 31, of Palestine, Texas, a platoon leader in the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment. “I think we have accomplished every goal we’ve set. We are the winners.”
Seeing Iraqi soldiers and police take over the U.S. military’s missions of searching for hidden bombs, manning checkpoints and hunting down insurgents also helps erase painful memories for soldiers like Sgt. Jed Glover, who has spent half of his 4 1/2-year career in Iraq.
Norris noted that serious acts of violence — bombings, killings, gunfire — are down significantly from his last tour, when he commanded a battalion for the 172nd Stryker brigade, one of the first units to be extended to a 15-month tour.
“It’s closure,” Glover said as he watched one convoy pack up earlier this week. “I’ve lost too many friends in this place. Too many friends.”
The way in
Seven years ago, Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Longacre, 29, rode into Iraq along the same highway in a soft Humvee in the wake of the initial invasion with the 1st Armored Division. On Thursday, he was in the last group of Strykers to ride into Kuwait.
Those were the days before complaints from troops reached the Pentagon about trucks so vulnerable soldiers were lining them with sandbags. It was before soldiers knew what “cordon and search” meant, before four U.S. contractors were burnt and two of them hung on a bridge in Fallujah.
It was before grunts had heard of COIN, the counterinsurgency strategy in which U.S. troops seek to protect the population rather than fight a violent war.
Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Mercer, 29, of Oldtown, Idaho, rode into Iraq in March 2003 in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with the 3rd Infantry Division. He still has his 54-card deck of playing cards the Pentagon released in early 2003 as a most-wanted list, with Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades.
For Mercer, this is the end of his fifth deployment since 9/11. The first two were to Kuwait, the second of which stretched to a third deployment — in Iraq — once his Bradley crossed the border going north.
He remembers the gunfire, clearing buildings in towns along the route north, flushing out Iraqi soldiers who were then trying to kill him. When he returned to Iraq the first time — his fourth tour, in the middle of the war — he found it hard to adjust to working with the Iraqis instead of fighting them.
“Now I was clearing houses with them,” he said, adding that it was hard to trust an Iraqi soldier standing next to him. “I might have shot his dad.”
Now Mercer is looking forward. He wants to be with his three kids. He wants to take his wife on a date.
It’s what they all want — reunions with boyfriends, the chance to meet a new girlfriend, bottles of cold beer, walks to the shower without trekking through hot dust.
“I want to sleep in my own bed,” said Sgt. Rashard Mason, 34, of Alexandria, Va., a power generator maintainer, one of the brigade’s soldiers who left last week ahead of the road march on a C-130 that flew out of Baghdad. “To roll around. In my bed.”
In the waning days of the tour, Huggins, the brigade’s top enlisted soldier, took some of his troops to see Baghdad’s historic sites, a chance to mix more good memories with the bad. He took them to see the ziggurat at Aqar Quf, the 3,500-year-old ruins in Abu Ghraib that once stood as the northern entrance to Baghdad.
He wanted the soldiers to see a part of Iraq’s history and let them take snapshots of themselves in front of an ancient monument in a country they’ve more often seen from a tactical vehicle or through the turret of a truck.
“It matters,” Huggins said. “It validated it for them.”
Out of Iraq
On Thursday morning, Huggins got some of those same soldiers across the Kuwait line. Some accept that there’s another war waiting.
Staff Sgt. Jonathan Ward, 25, of Baton Rouge, La., spent the last year doing route clearance for the brigade, crawling down country roads around Abu Ghraib looking for buried bombs.
“I hope that deployments chill out,” said Ward, another member of the 1-38, as he relaxed one night last week, smoking a hookah at an on-base restaurant near the end of his third deployment since 2005.
He’s traded some of his stateside dwell time for a move to Fort Polk, La., to be closer to his son. It means he’ll likely deploy again — to Afghanistan, where he served his first two tours — before the end of the year.
When it comes to Iraq, though, most believe they are done.
“I’m not coming back,” said Spc. Steven Jones, 25, of San Diego, a mechanic who was sunburned, exhausted and elated to be headed home this month.
Sgt. Jared Doss, another mechanic with the brigade, isn’t as sure.
“I didn’t think I’d come out here for a second tour,” said the 32-year-old from Miami, Ariz., as he waited last week for a plane to take him home, ahead of the Stryker soldiers on the road.
“You never know.”