KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait — As their convoy reached the barbed wire at the border crossing out of Iraq on Wednesday, the soldiers whooped and cheered. Then they scrambled out of their stifling hot armored vehicles, unfurled an American flag and posed for group photos.
For these troops of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, it was a moment of relief fraught with symbolism. Seven years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President Barack Obama's Aug. 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations there.
When 18-year-old Spc. Luke Dill first rolled into Iraq as part of the U.S. invasion, his Humvee was so vulnerable to bombs that the troops lined its floor with flak jackets.
Now 25 and a staff sergeant after two tours of duty, he rode out of Iraq this week in a Stryker, an eight-wheeled behemoth encrusted with armor.
"It's something I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life — the fact that I came in on the initial push and now I'm leaving with the last of the combat units," he said.
He remembered three straight days of mortar attacks outside the city of Najaf in 2003. It was so noisy that after the firing ended, the silence kept him awake at nights. He recalled the night skies over the northern city of Mosul being lit up by tracer bullets from almost every direction.
Waiting for him back in Olympia, Wash., is the "Big Boy" Harley-Davidson he purchased on base — a vivid illustration of how embedded the American presence has become since the invasion of March 20, 2003.
The American presence in Iraq is far from over. Groups of combat troops still await departure, and some 50,000 will stay another year in what is designated as a noncombat role. They will carry weapons to defend themselves and accompany Iraqi troops on missions (but only if asked). Special forces will continue to help Iraqis hunt for terrorists.
So the U.S. death toll — at least 4,415 by Pentagon count as of Wednesday — may not yet be final.
It took months of preparation to move the troops and armor across more than 300 miles of desert highway through potentially hostile territory.
The Strykers left the Baghdad area in separate convoys over a four-day period, traveling at night because the U.S.-Iraq security pact — and security worries — limit troop movements by day.
Along the way, phalanxes of American military Humvees sat at overpasses, soldiers patrolled the highways for roadside bombs, and Apache attack helicopters circled overhead as the Strykers refueled.
But except for camels straying into the road and breakdowns that required some vehicles to be towed, there were no incidents.
When the convoy finally reached the sandy border, two armed and helmeted soldiers jumped off their vehicle and raced each other into Kuwait.