By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 19, 2010; A01
Lt. Col. Mark Bieger huddled his infantrymen in a darkened parking lot minutes before they were to depart Baghdad for the last time.
"This is a historic mission!" he bellowed, struggling to be heard over the zoom of fighter jets and unmanned drones deployed to watch over the brigade's convoy to Kuwait. "A truly historic end to seven years of war."
The 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which left Iraq this week, was the final U.S. combat brigade to be pulled out of the country, fulfilling the Obama administration's pledge to end the U.S. combat mission by the end of August. About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq, mainly as a training force.
"Operation Iraqi Freedom ends on your watch!" exclaimed Col. John Norris, the head of the brigade.
"Hooah!" the soldiers roared, using an Army battle cry.
Shortly before midnight Saturday, a group of infantrymen boarded Stryker fighting vehicles, left an increasingly sparse base behind and began scanning the sides of a desolate highway for bombs. For many veterans, including some who made the same trip in the opposite direction years ago under fire, it was a fitting way to exit.
"They're leaving as heroes," Norris said of his soldiers. "I want them to walk home with pride in their hearts."
Besides pride, the soldiers will carry with them the hidden costs of war: hardened glares; tales of comrades' deaths relayed in monotone sentences devoid of emotion; young faces rendered incongruously old.
There might never be an acknowledged end to the Iraq war -- a moment where it ceases being America's conflict. U.S. commanders acknowledge that the months-long political impasse over the disputed March 7 elections and a flurry of other unresolved disputes in Iraq have the potential to erode hard-won security gains.
But U.S. commanders also seem to be stressing that this is no longer America's war to lose. "I will let history judge whether we reached irreversible momentum," Norris said. "That's not my call."
By the end of this month, the United States will have six brigades in Iraq, by far its smallest footprint since the 2003 invasion. Those that remain are conventional combat brigades reconfigured slightly and rebranded "advise and assist brigades." The primary mission of those units and the roughly 4,500 U.S. special operations forces that will stay behind will be to train Iraqi troops. Under a bilateral agreement, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
Leaving Iraq one last time is particularly emotional for veterans who have served multiple tours, several soldiers said in the two-day journey through the southern desert to Kuwait in cramped, windowless vehicles.
Silver remembrance bracelets to honor fallen comrades and tattoos that speak of loss and sacrifice are among the visible signs of the toll this conflict has taken on a generation of volunteer warriors.
More than 4,400 U.S. service members have died in the Iraq war since the invasion.
Several of these soldiers have served in Iraq more than one tour; some as many as four.
They witnessed the toppling of a dictator and its aftermath, including the rise of a powerful and lethal insurgency. That extended the conflict long after the words "Mission Accomplished" appeared on a banner as President George W. Bush prematurely declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq aboard an aircraft carrier May 1, 2003.
They were thrust into the front lines of a brutal sectarian war that ultimately ebbed. And they helped secure elections that bore a government system more akin to an oligarchy than a parliamentary democracy.
Spec. Clinton J. Clemens, 26, was barely 18 when he traveled the same route northward in September 2003, clutching a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on a vehicle.
"I was scared to death," the Edgefield, S.C., native recalled. "I remember crossing the border and about 15 minutes later is when we took our first contact. It was the first time I'd ever been shot at."
Shortly after arriving in the western city of Ramadi in fall 2004, Clemens said, he realized that the war was far from over. Sunnis who had been fired from government jobs formed armed groups and began attacking U.S. forces daily.
Sgt. Luke Hitchcock, 26, of Olean, N.Y., said he got his first real taste of combat during his third deployment while stationed in Arab Jabour, a rural area southeast of Baghdad that was a Sunni insurgent stronghold in 2007.
"That was a horrible area. My platoon took six casualties," he said, speaking evenly. "I received a Purple Heart during that deployment. I was blown up." He suffered shrapnel wounds from a roadside bomb and was hospitalized for a month before returning to duty.
His fourth and final deployment was cathartic, Hitchcock said, because he believes he is leaving behind a safer country with a large and proficient army. "I think the fact that we stuck it out a few extra years to help their forces take control of their country" is important, he said. "That helps you hold your head up high as you leave and know that you made a difference."
But it is also clear that the departing soldiers are not leaving behind a peaceful country. The brigade ended up driving out in waves -- rather than having most soldiers flown out -- because that allowed the military to keep its last combat force a few weeks longer as commanders assessed the risks of political instability.
Commanders spent weeks studying the perils of the 360-mile nighttime drive through the sweltering, dusty desert of southern Iraq. Powerful roadside bombs lined the two-lane road. And Shiite militias have stepped up attacks against U.S. bases in southern Iraq in recent weeks.
As a precaution, the military demanded that journalists accompanying the soldiers on the trip refrain from disclosing details of their departure until early Thursday, when the last group was scheduled to cross the Kuwaiti border.
For some troops, the protracted political crisis in Baghdad was a source of angst. Many Iraqis fear that militants are exploiting the period of uncertainty to make a comeback.
"Of all the time and effort that we put in this country, the blood, the sweat, the tears, I wish you could see an answer within a couple of weeks or a couple of months," said the brigade's second in command, Lt. Col. Darren Wright, 42, of Dallas. "But we won't know that for another three to five years: Will all your efforts pay off?"
Some soldiers said that's unlikely.
"I hope good things come from it," said Clemens, the specialist. "But I think as soon as we leave, things are going to fall apart."
The first departing soldiers made it to the Kuwaiti border Sunday at dawn. They emerged from the vehicles smelly and sweat-stained. Their uniforms were dirty; their boots worn out.
There were a few high-fives but no air of jubilation as they covered the .50-caliber machine guns atop the vehicles and began dumping bullets from ammunition packs into cartons. Most will return to Fort Lewis, Wash., where the 2nd Infantry is based. Others will leave the military, while some will move to other units. And none will be deployed for at least another year because Army regulations now stipulate that soldiers' at-home rest period must be at least as long as their last combat deployment.
"I hope this becomes a place where I can come back in 25 years," said Hitchcock, the sergeant. "But other than that, I'm glad it's over. I'm glad it's ending. I'm glad we can stop sending people here."