Last troops exit Iraq in subdued end to 9-year war (Video)
On Saturday evening at Camp Adder, near Nasiriyah and about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, the vehicles lined up in an open field to prepare, and soldiers went through last-minute equipment checks to make sure radios, weapons and other gear were working.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commanding general for Iraq, walked through the rows of vehicles, talking to soldiers over the low hum of the engines. He thanked them for their service.
"I wanted to remind them that we have an important mission left in the country of Iraq. We want to stay focused and we want to make sure that we're doing the right things to protect ourselves," Austin said.
Early Saturday morning, the brigade's remaining interpreters made their routine calls to the local tribal sheiks and government leaders that the troops deal with, so that they would assume that it was just a normal day.
"The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there," said Spc. Joseph, an Iraqi American who emigrated from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted. He asked that his full name be withheld to protect his family.
Camp Adder is now an Iraqi air force base, although they don't have any planes yet. Many of the Americans spent their last day sweeping out the trailers that housed thousands of troops and contractors while Iraqi officers came by to inspect their future domain.
Little by little, the U.S. military gave up pieces of Camp Adder. Soldiers closed down guard towers, turned over checkpoints leading into the base and left hundreds of vehicles, oil tankers and trucks in vast lots with the keys on the dashboard.
The volleyball and basketball courts stood empty. And no one worked out at the gym called "House of Pain."
The roughly 13-square-mile base had at one time been a major way station where troops and supplies often stopped on their way south or north.
But by the time the Americans pulled out for good, their numbers had dwindled so low that the wild dogs that used to be too afraid to come near the living quarters now wandered freely through the rows of trailers and concrete blast walls.
Sgt. First Class Hilda McNamee was the truck commander in the last MRAP to drive out of Iraq. The 34-year-old said when she gets back to Texas, she plans to take her son to the International House of Pancakes.
For her the significance of the last convoy driving out was immediately apparent.
"It means I won't open a newspaper and find out that one of my friends passed away," said McNamee.
She welled up but didn't want to go any deeper. Some memories will always be too fresh.
Going home will also bring new dangers for the troops.
Col. Douglas Crissman, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said one of his biggest concerns now was making sure that all his soldiers who survived this deployment also survive their re-entry into what is supposed to be a safer world.
"Quite frankly, we lost more soldiers in peacetime in the nine or ten months before this brigade deployed due to accidents and risky behavior ... than we lost here in combat," he said.
His brigade, which controlled the four provinces in southern Iraq, lost three soldiers during this tour. Two were killed by roadside bombs and one was killed by a rocket, likely as he was trying to get to a bunker.
But in the roughly 10 months leading up to their deployment, they lost 13 people. At least one was a confirmed suicide.
The U.S. plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, hoping to foster a lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region. Obama met in Washington with Prime Minister al-Maliki last week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship.
U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. U.S. defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.
In the end, many of the departing troops wrestled with a singular question: Was it worth it?
Capt. Mark Askew, a 28-year-old from Tampa, Florida, said the answer will depend on what type of country Iraq turns into years from now - whether it is democratic and respects human rights.
"People are asking themselves: 'Was this worth it?"' he said, speaking to his troops before they set off to Kuwait. "I can't answer that question right now."
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