Last U.S troops leave Iraq
CNN) — Early Sunday, as the sun ascended to the winter sky, the very last American convoy made its way down the main highway that connects Iraq and Kuwait.
The military called it its final “tactical road march.” A series of 110 heavily armored, hulking trucks and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles carrying about 500 soldiers streamed slowly but steadily out of the combat zone.
A few minutes before 8 a.m., the metal gate behind the last MRAP closed. With it came to an end a deadly and divisive war that lasted almost nine years, its enormous cost calculated in blood and billions.
Some rushed to touch the gate, forever a symbol now of an emotional, landmark day. Some cheered with the Army’s ultimate expression of affirmation: “Hooah!”
“It’s hard to put words to it right now,” said Lt. Col. Jack Vantress.
“It’s a feeling of elation,” he said, “to see what we’ve accomplished in the last eight-and-a-half years and then to be part of the last movement out of Iraq.”
Once, when hundreds of thousands of Americans were in Iraq, the main highway was better known as Main Supply Route Tampa and soldiers trekked north towards Baghdad and beyond, never knowing what danger lurked on their path.
On this monumental day, the Texas-based 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division’s main concern was how to avoid a traffic jam on their final journey in Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Gaumer, 37, was on this road in August 2003. It was his first time at war. He was frightened.
There was not a lot of traffic at that time, he recalled. He remembered a lot of cheering by Iraqis, even though the situation was tense.
Sunday morning, the air was decidedly different.
“It’s pretty historic,” he said about the drive south, hoping he will not ever have to come back through this unforgiving terrain again.
Once there were bases sprinkled in the desolate desert between Nasiriya and Basra, American soldiers hidden from view behind walls of giant mesh Hesco bags filled with dirt and sand to stave off incoming fire.
On this day, the roads, the bases were in Iraqi hands, the sands in the bags returned to the earth.
Once, almost nine years ago in March 2003, U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers had thundered north, with the drive and determination needed to decapitate a dictator.
On this day, heading south towards Khabari border crossing, the soldiers took stock of their sacrifice.
In another war, there had been little joy or even emotion as final jet transports lifted Americans from Vietnamese soil.
Sunday saw the end of the largest troop drawdown for the United States since Vietnam.
Those men and women who fought in Iraq may not feel they are leaving behind an unfinished war or returning home to a nation as deeply scarred as it was after years of Vietnam.
But many crossed the border harboring mixed feelings and doubt about the future of Iraq.
“The biggest thing about going home is just that it’s home,” Gaumer said. “It’s civilization as I know it — the Western world, not sand and dust and the occasional rain here and there.”
A month ago, Adder, the last U.S. base before the five-hour drive to the Kuwaiti border, housed 12,000 people. By Thursday, the day the United States formally ended its mission in Iraq with a flag-casing ceremony in Baghdad, under 1,000 people remained there.
The 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division officially transferred control of Camp Adder to the Iraqis on Friday, though it did not really change hands until the last American departed early Sunday morning.
The United States will still maintain a presence in Iraq: hundreds of nonmilitary personnel, including 1,700 diplomats, law enforcement officers, and economic, agricultural and other experts, according to the State Department. In addition, 5,000 security contractors will protect Americans and another 4,500 contractors will serve in other roles.
The quiet U.S. exit, shrouded in secrecy until it occurred, closes a war that was contentious from the start and cost the nation more than $800 billion.
President Barack Obama, who had made a campaign promise to bring home American troops, reflected on a greater cost as Sunday’s exit made good on his word.