In Iraq, combat troops head home to U.S. with guitars, hope

BAGHDAD — The last US combat brigade of the Iraq war is leaving – a milestone in the seven-year war that has left soldiers and commanders heartened by progress here but unsure whether the gains they’ve fought so hard for will hold.

On the airfield at the Baghdad airport that was one of the first places secured by US combat troops as they moved into the Iraqi capital in 2003, soldiers from the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, boarded planes over the weekend to Fort Lewis, Wash.

“We’re going home!” some of them shouted over the roar of the engine of the C-130 cargo plane after they cleared their weapons, stowed their duffel bags, and sat back for the first leg of the long journey back.

In the waiting room, the laptops that allowed them to keep in daily touch with their families on this deployment displayed photos of the wives and children that many would soon be seeing.

The brigade, designed around the armored Stryker vehicle first sent into battle here in 2004, played a key part in urban fighting in the military surge. Nearly half the unit spent a record 15 months deployed in the worst of the fighting in Diyala Province three years ago. Throughout the war, three Stryker brigades with more than 12,000 soldiers were deployed in Iraq.

While combat troops will remain to train, advise, and conduct joint counterterrorism operations, the soldiers’ departure marks President Obama’s pledge to bring all combat brigades home by Sept 1. Under the current US-Iraq security agreement, the remaining 50,000 US forces will be out by this time next year. The remaining troops and their brigades are also fully combat ready but are here on advisory and assistance missions.

Most served deployment without firing a shot
Most of the Strykers spent this deployment in and around Baghdad helping maintain security for elections and working with Iraqi security forces without firing a single shot in combat.

“Seven years of war is ending on their watch. I wanted them to walk home with pride in their hearts and understand that their sacrifice and their performance was well received,” brigade commander Col. John Norris told a group of reporters seeing off the first large group of soldiers.

For most commanders and their troops, the legacy of the war is more ambiguous than their accomplishments.

“Our strategy coming in here was irreversible momentum and history will be the judge whether it was truly irreversible,” says Colonel Norris, from Louisville, Ky. “The momentum was clearly established … what history will tell in a few years I don’t know.”

‘Obviously you can feel tension, but I feel hope’
The brigade arrived in Iraq in August 2009 after being diverted from a planned deployment to Afghanistan, when it became clear that combat capability was needed here to prepare for Iraq’s national elections in March.

The elections in early March went off with minimal violence. But more than five months later, forming a new government has stalled over disagreements over who would get the top positions.

“Obviously you can feel tension with the government and wanting a new government but I feel hope,” says Capt. Christopher Ophardt, ending his third deployment here. “I think the hope isn’t so much in that everything’s going to be great – it’s we think there could be a future for Iraq. Whether that happens or not is where the angst comes in.”

The changing role of the soldiers here and the repeated deployments marked the dramatic shifts in this war – from invasion and what was expected to be a quick end to combat, to an escalating multipronged insurgency and civil war that threatened to overwhelm American forces. The military surge that put tens of thousands of extra troops out in the streets was a factor in the dramatic reduction of violence.

The Strykers – relatively agile, armored, eight-wheeled vehicles designed to move large numbers of infantry soldiers into cities as well as through the countryside – were at the center of offensive operations.

“It was able to get to the area, it was intimidating, it has that lethal sense to it but at the same time when you drop the ramp and walk out with pink backpacks it shows a different kind of war,” says Captain Ophardt, from Jacksonville, Fla., referring to humanitarian missions delivering school supplies to children during the last deployment.

“I came here expecting an enemy that was making its last stand against the foreign infidels – something along those lines – but I mostly just saw some hard stares every once in a while and a bunch of kids asking for soccer balls,” says 1st Lt. Mark Hamilton from Baltimore, Md.

‘Those 4,400 people didn’t die in vain’
The brigade in its previous deployment during the surge had 37 soldiers killed in action and more than 200 seriously wounded. In another sign of the times, in this latest deployment the brigade’s only fatality was a senior noncommissioned officer dead in an apparent suicide.

While US military deaths in Iraq have topped 4,400, the Army’s major fight has now shifted to Afghanistan.

“For the guys who have been in firefights, lost their friends, lost their family, you don’t want to see another firefight,” says Sgt. First Class Mike Randolph from Tuscumbia, Ala. “For us to come here and not fire a single round, for most of us that means those 4,400 people didn’t die in vain – they’re the reason we didn’t fire a shot.”

The soldiers themselves have had to adjust from all-out combat to the much more nuanced task of identifying potential allies and mentoring Iraqi security forces now in charge.

“Some of the these guys who didn’t get into a gunfight while they were here are questioning themselves and saying, ‘How would I do in a gunfight?’ and I say ‘killing’s easy, it’s just pull the trigger…. Changing a culture or an ideal is much, much harder,’” says Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins, from Honolulu, Hawaii.

Packing up guitars, heading home
On the sprawling base that has been home to many of the troops for the past year, soldiers packed up guitars and other diversions that got them through the deployment to ship home. By next week, almost the entire 4,000-strong brigade will be back in the United States.

“The future generation of Iraq – they will see the difference and history will tell whether it was worth it or not,” says Chief Warrant Officer Neftali Sanchez from Lares, Puerto Rico. Sanchez served five deployments in Iraq after stop-loss measures extended the active duty of soldiers who would otherwise be allowed to leave.

“There will still be violence – I think there will be a bit of expectation management for the soldiers,” says Colonel Norris. “It’s over for the soldiers. Is it over for the Iraqis? It’s not but it’s their fight now.”

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