Camp Echo packs up in Iraq with little fanfare
CAMP ECHO, Iraq — Army Reserve Sgt. Christopher Williams was there at the start, in 2003, when U.S. forces streamed north from Kuwait into Iraq after the “shock and awe” aerial bombardments in a race to secure Baghdad.
Nearly nine years and three tours later, now a reservist with the 206th Transportation Company, Williams is helping to wrap up the war, participating in one of America’s last missions in Iraq.
“It’s historical for me,” said Williams, of Mobile, Ala. He previously deployed to Balad, Ramadi and Fallujah, he said. “I was here when it first jumped off, and now I’m here closing everything.”
While there might be a few more convoys out of Iraq, men and women like Williams have been trundling north from Kuwait to bring back the last remnants of America’s war in Iraq since President Barack Obama announced a full withdrawal of troops by year’s end on Oct. 21.
On Tuesday, the 206th and the Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor, left Kuwait and headed out to Camp Echo, near the southern city of Diwaniyah, to escort out remaining gear before the base closed later in the week.
On arrival, they found soldiers too busy to note the significance of being the second-to-last base to close in Iraq.
The 1/194th has logged about a million miles on Iraqi roads since July, according to Company A commander Capt. Neal Schau.
“We felt the pressure to get everything out,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Goff, a convoy commander for the 1/194th’s Company A.
As the deadline neared and bases continued to close, units such as the 206th and 1/194th crossed into Iraq more often; days and nights were long, boring and confusing, fueled by Rip-Its, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
Although violence has decreased in Iraq since 2007, it was anyone’s guess as to who might be out there in the night, looking for departing U.S. forces to try one last attack.
“I’d rather take the fight to the enemy than get hit by an IED,” said Sgt. Joey Palmitessa of the 1-194th, a veteran of Ramadi during 2006 and 2007. “Not knowing, driving up and down the road, who’s going to get hit, that uncertainty — it could happen any second.”
After a group prayer Tuesday night, guards opened the border gate and the trucks rolled out, roughly four dozen Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, Army heavy equipment transporter trucks and contracted semis.
Early Saturday morning, these soldiers would man some of the last American convoys to leave the country.
Soldiers with the 1/194th had made the trip many times. Despite the risks, they had to go, even if they might be escorting empty trucks.
The history of the moment didn’t seem to matter for many of the soldiers. It was another day, another job, another chance to get out of Iraq safely, one last time.
“I don’t see anything getting recognized anymore,” said Sgt. Calvin Meyer, of Albertville, Minn., who had two brothers deploy to Iraq earlier in the war. “The drawdown is here, get out of here.”
Shutting down Echo
Seven hours after crossing the border, the snake of trucks entered the outskirts of Diwaniyah. Camp Echo sits inside an Iraqi army base there, now nearly empty.
Surprisingly, the dwindling base still had most of its amenities. The gym remained open, as did the chow hall. Hot water and toilets were still functional.
At its peak, the base housed 2,600 soldiers, according to Maj. John Williams, executive officer for the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment — the unit in charge of shutting down Echo. By Friday morning, fewer than 500 remained.
The 1/82’s command center had been moved under the hard roof of the chow hall, then the nerve center was condensed into the back of an MRAP.
Base closures have generally flowed north to south to keep medevac and other assistance assets intact as units move toward Kuwait, Williams said.
“Today, there’s absolutely nothing north of Echo,” he said.
The 1/82 arrived with the rest of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade about five months ago and has shipped out all types of equipment since then.
But much has also been left behind: a mass of housing units, latrine and shower trailers, generators, heaters, desks, light fixtures and other war detritus.
Things were moving fast.
Just a few days earlier, there had been four U.S. bases in Iraq, Williams said.
Soldiers out of Echo were still patrolling Tuesday, but it became increasingly difficult.
“Me and my 16 friends are going to stop something outside the wire?” Williams said of the most recent trips outside the wire.
It was nearing the time to go for Williams and the rest, and he said he took pride in the fact that the transition had been smooth.
“This isn’t Saigon, 1975, hanging off the Embassy,” he said.
On Thursday, while grilling hot dogs, 1/194th soldiers were scolded by a base commander for not wearing eye protection. Soldiers were also warned that as the footprint shrank, they needed to reinforce the buddy system and be wary of kidnappings.
While nowhere near as common as they were earlier in the war, bombs were still being found on the road, 1st Brigade commander Col. Scott Efflandt said.
“People ought to go home safely,” he said. “We are about 36 hours from keeping that promise.”
“The situation is going to get worse.”
Just down the main base thoroughfare, a group of Iraqi workers milled about on Thursday afternoon, their final day on the base.
Omar, who asked that his last name not be used, is a native of Diwaniyah.
He was not looking forward to the U.S. soldiers rolling out.
“I don’t feel good about it,” he said simply. “The situation is going to get worse.”
The Iraqi army and police will continue to be tested as violence once aimed at U.S. troops migrates toward the Iraqi government, Efflandt said.
“It’s certainly better than it’s been in the last eight years, but there’s another chapter to be written,” he said.
Capt. Jake Wade led the final Army effort to engage local leaders.
Wade deployed to Iraq in 2007 and again in 2009 and 2010, and said he’s seen improvement in the Iraqi army and police with each return. A former schoolteacher who joined up after the war began, Wade said forging a national identity will be key for the Iraqis going forward.
On Friday, another convoy of soldiers left Echo.
Whatever was left in the chow hall’s freezers was served: chicken nuggets, some sort of cabbage and an assortment of slightly stale pastries. There was also an abundance of juice, milk and Gatorade.
Soldiers killed the day playing cards and hanging around, waiting for a sergeant major to appear and inspect the rooms they had crashed in since arriving Tuesday. A lieutenant colonel wandered the base, picking up any scrap of paper or cigarette butt he saw.
The crews headed out to their trucks as the sun went down, awaiting an 11:30 p.m. departure. Night fell, and the departure was pushed back an hour. Only a small fraction of the contracted semis driven up from Kuwait were carrying cargo.
Staff Sgt. Goff, Capt. Schau and a few other non-commissioned officers sat in an empty office littered with pens, pads and medical supplies, playing spades.
They were among the last 1,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, awaiting word that they could start heading out.
Palmitessa of the 1/194th was glad to see the security escort mission ending for his unit.
This deployment, though taxing, was too pedestrian.
“It’s not what I imagined,” he said. “I didn’t expect to ride in a truck up and down (Main Supply Route) Tampa waiting to get hit. It makes my wife happy that it’s boring.”
“In terms of finally getting it done, it’s significant,” Palmitessa said of the part his unit was playing in the war’s end. “But if it wasn’t me, it’d be someone else.”
The ride back was largely uneventful.
After crossing through a simple metal gate at about 6 a.m. on Saturday, the soldiers were safe. They celebrated their final exit from Iraq, hugging and taking photos.
Sgt. Christopher Williams, who saw so much of the country through three previous deployments, stepped out of his truck into Kuwait’s clear, cold desert air.
“It’s over with,” he said quietly. “A huge weight has been lifted off me.”