It’s just past midnight Monday at Camp Taji on the northern boundary of Baghdad. The last formal U.S. military combat detachment to leave Iraq after America’s seven-year war is ready to leave. Over the course of three days, 360 military vehicles and 1,800 soldiers are taking the road through Baghdad and the Shiite south to Kuwait.
For these soldiers, the road out is marked with blood and regret for the years spent away from family. Sometimes the Iraqis welcomed them, sometimes they wished them dead. The sides remain unfathomable to each other even today.
At 1 a.m., a dozen sergeants and lieutenants gather in a semicircle for their briefing about the route. “It’s just another roll,” a lieutenant says as one man packs a wad of tobacco into his mouth. He spits and the musty smell fills the air. “Take everything slow. It’s the last mission. There’s no reason for anyone to get hurt.”
One Soldier grins. He’s the senior scout who will lead the line of 16 Strykers from Arrow Company, with an eye for possible bombs or ambushes. “I’m totally excited,” he says. “We’ll go right down the street.”
It’s dark still, but he gets pumped thinking about passing the garbage dump and squatter camp on the western edge of Baghdad they’ve named District 9, after the horror movie where aliens living in a refugee camp feed on cans of cat food.
He smiles again. “It’s going to be awesome.”
The President wants only 50,000 troops there on September 1. Because of that, thousands of soldiers are returning home six months early. The 278th was supposed to deploy for a year, but they’re coming home early because of the troop draw down in Iraq.
At the Tennessee Air National Guard in Smyrna on Monday, families waited for the soldiers. They arrived in several groups after spending a few days at Camp Shelby in Mississippi.
Half a year was a long time for 3-year-old Chastin Brooks. Chastin waited on the tarmac with her grandmother. She held a sign that read “Welcome Home 278th.” Finally, she spotted her father, soldier Matt Brooks and ran and jumped into his arms.
Most of the National Guard’s 278th Armored Cavalry has returned home. There were several welcoming committees.
Staff Sergeant Joel Gibbons was greeted by several members of his church, his wife and five children.
“I’m just excited to be back with the family and just be able to enjoy jumping into the car and driving to Wal-Mart and doing something,” Sgt. Gibbons said.
“We’ve been supporting him for many years and we love him,” Gibbons’ youngest son Preston said.
Taking care of five children was not easy, but Katina Gibbons said the family is a team that worked together. She said it’s still good to have her husband home.
“We do well. We’re a team, but I’m glad to have the boss home,” Katina Gibbons said.
Colonel Jeff Holmes said it was a perfect deployment. He said there were a few injuries, but no one was killed.
“We got in there and we were able to kind of see a historic moment in Iraq we’re kind of ending combat operations and turning it over to the local populace,” Holmes said.
Some information for this article was obtained from Mark Bellinger, Reporter: http://www.newschannel5.com and the LA Times: www.latimes.net
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