The last combat brigade's peaceful exit from Iraq to Kuwait reminded me of a similar convoy I joined in late 2004. The difference: We went in the opposite direction, driving from Kuwait into a still unstable Iraq. U.S. troops in Iraq dropped below the 50,000 mark in August, the lowest level since the war began in 2003 and ahead of a deadline for combat brigade withdrawal on Aug. 31, when President Obama planned to address the nation about the seven-year war.
Six years ago things looked different: "Everybody on your weapons, and look mean and ugly," a company commander of the 278th Regimental Combat Team blurted as the unit I embedded with halted just outside one of Iraq's most dangerous towns that December.
We drove the 450-mile route in lightly armored trucks and Humvees along stretches with nicknames like "RPG/IED Alley." Craters from past explosions lined the roadside. Before the journey troops in Kuwait welded rusted scrap metal onto the doors and grilles of their vehicles for added protection. The Tennessee-based unit dubbed it "hillbilly armor."
Flash-forward: Today departing soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division rolled out of Iraq in heavily armored combat vehicles called Strykers. These squat, eight-wheeled rides look like rhinos on steroids, decked out with steel and ceramic plates that can withstand rocket-propelled grenades and other armor-piercing projectiles.
When the last of these recently entered Kuwait, soldiers honked their horns, unfurled American flags, and posed for group photos. They encountered no problems, according to the Associated Press, except 120-degree temperatures and camels straying into the road.
Iraq is definitely a safer place, but "I still see stuff on the road and jerk away," said Reid Brock, one of the soldiers I convoyed with along those bomb-infused roads six years ago. "That was a major event in my life."
The 278th just ended its second deployment in Iraq this summer, too. Staff Sgt. Thomas Greene, 56, joined the regiment for both deployments and said trip two was dull, but in a positive way.
"The fighting part was over," he said. "It was good that it was boring because we brought everybody home." The 278th endured 14 casualties during its first deployment.
Instead of roadside bombs, Greene, based north of Baghdad this time, noticed a lot more roadside shops. He found Iraqi people engaging and grateful. Iraqi troops now work with the same purpose-unlike five years ago when factions hindered the military's development. "I don't know how long it is going to take, but it is going to work out over there," Greene said. "I wouldn't have said that same thing five years ago."
But challenges remain: The day after the 2nd Infantry Division left, bombers and gunmen killed at least 55 Iraqis and wounded hundreds in nearly two dozen attacks across Iraq. Much of the violence hit Iraqi security forces-fueling fears that militants, quelled by the U.S. troop surge of 2007, may make their own resurgence in the face of the U.S. drawdown. But Iraqis won't be totally alone: A handful of noncombat U.S. brigades and about 4,500 U.S. Special Forces troops will stay at least another year. That means the final chapter of the Iraq War has not been written-and that the casualty count, more than 4,400 U.S. service members killed in Iraq since 2003-likely will rise.