ON THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER - The clock read 12:54 yesterday morning in the troop carrier, a mine-resistant machine armored like a monstrous armadillo, as it crawled through the moonlit desert and toward the Kuwaiti border.
“Take a good look,’’ the driver, Staff Sergeant Justin McCarty, said as he approached the dusty checkpoint. “This will probably be the last time you’ll ever see Iraq.’’
“Ain’t much to look at,’’ his gunner, Sergeant Jerry Chambers, replied in a Tennessee twang.
After a road march of nearly 22 hours and more than 300 miles, McCarty and his squad from the 82d Airborne Division had finally left Iraq, part of an achingly slow procession of 700 soldiers.
The squad had been among the last American soldiers to pass through Baghdad. They had observed a predawn moment of silence at the spot where their squadron lost seven soldiers in 2007.
They counted themselves among the final US military units to depart Iraq nearly nine years after an invasion that led to 4,500 deaths of US service members, 32,000 wounded, and perhaps more than 100,000 Iraqis killed, mostly by sectarian violence that ravaged the country.
Now, under the glare of floodlights at a barren border crossing, they helped bring to an end one of the most tumultuous chapters in American military history.
When the seven soldiers in this armored vehicle crossed the border, they acknowledged the moment without cheers or bravado or smugness or many words at all.
Instead, they looked ahead quietly to spending the holidays at home following a seven-month deployment.
Lieutenant David Neil McCrery IV, 26, the gun truck’s commander from Galesburg, Ill., imagined holding his 2-month-old son for the first time. And Chambers, the taciturn gunner, figured he would probably go hunting.
Before they began their road march from Taji, a once-bustling US base 15 miles north of Baghdad, these soldiers from C Troop, First Squadron, 73d Cavalry Regiment, Second Brigade, 82d Airborne Division had been reminded of their history on a day when they helped make history.
On Sept. 10, 2007, seven members of the squadron died, and 11 were wounded, when their vehicle plunged off a Baghdad overpass after a night raid.
“They were my brothers. That’s my memory of them,’’ said Specialist Eric Gagacki, 23, who was riding behind them that fateful day. “It took a long time to accept their sacrifice.’’
Wary, but ready to go home
On Thursday, the day before the convoy began, the US portion of the Taji base, which Iraqi forces also use, had been transformed into a sand-swept ghost town. Sergeant First Class Chris Proctor swatted golf balls into a camouflage net hung a dozen yards away.
Hundreds of buildings had been shuttered, many guard towers stood empty, and US soldiers walked in pairs amid heightened fear of kidnapping.
“I’m like everyone else: I’m ready to go home for Christmas,’’ said Proctor, 32, of Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
Proctor, a senior medic with five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, would soon clamber aboard the convoy, which would leave Taji, pick up units on the way south, and swell to more than 150 vehicles, said Major Robel Ramirez.
But Proctor could not leave behind the memory of losing his best friend to a roadside explosion in 2005. Proctor, two vehicles behind, responded to the blast, which “just incinerated the truck.’’ He did not realize at first that his friend had been killed.
“It’s still hard,’’ Proctor said.
Proctor, who has a combat medic badge, nodded toward a pair of junior medics who accompanied him to the makeshift driving range.
“These guys, they’re young and eager, and they want to go out and earn it,’’ Proctor said of the badge. “But trust me, sometimes you don’t want to see the things you need to do to earn it.’’
Proctor said the mission in Iraq has been productive.
“We stabilized the country; we set in a democratic government. What more do you want?’’ he said. “It’s their country; let them have it.’’
By today, the United States will have “zero bases, zero troops, and zero equipment’’ in Iraq, said Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, who served as the top US military spokesman in Iraq.
The overall transition has been swift. About 40,000 troops remained in Iraq on Oct. 1 and only 3,000 by Friday night.
Buchanan said the last military equipment from Iraq is expected to be shipped from Kuwait by April.
On Thursday night, C Troop ventured outside the wire-topped walls of Taji to unleash one last show of force, a barrage of 24 illumination rockets, fired at two locations from 120mm mortars, to drive insurgents from fields where they could launch rounds into the base.
The exercise, the last use of US artillery in Iraq, seemed to be as much symbolism as deterrent. “It demonstrates that we’re here, that we’re not going anywhere right now,’’ said Lieutenant David Saxton, 25, the mission’s fire-support officer.
For this mission, US soldiers in four MRAPs, the heavily armored trucks that carried C Troop to Kuwait, were joined by two vehicles with Iraqi forces. Shortly afterward, in what might have been the last episode of its kind, an Iraqi family was faced in the black of night with armed American soldiers at the door.
The patriarch, a 47-year-old with eight children, was asked if the soldiers, American and Iraqi, could use his roof to observe the accuracy of the illumination rounds. At first he protested, but he relented when an Iraqi soldier assured him the intent was not to shoot from the roof, but merely to watch.
Saxton acknowledged the man’s worry.
“I wouldn’t want anyone showing up at my house in the middle of the night,’’ Saxton said, as he walked the compound’s grounds to a staccato chorus of barking dogs.
Karim Mkhlif led his guests two flights to the roof and watched the fireworks light up an area more than a mile wide. Mkhlif, who owns a small bus, served tea to the soldiers on a chilly, star-filled night.
When the 24th round was fired, after the fields and homes near Taji were illuminated for a final time, Sergeant Aaron Granger, 29, allowed himself a small smile.
“That’s all she wrote,’’ said Granger, “the last fire mission in Iraq.’’
‘You’re making history’
The fire mission ended near midnight, and the soldiers quickly headed to their beds before the road march to Kuwait.
In 24 hours, they gathered again near the MRAPs and wreckers that would carry them out of the country, sometimes as slowly as 10 miles an hour on roads where cars piloted by impatient Iraqis wove in and out of the convoy.
Soldiers hoisted rucksacks into trucks, buddies laughed and chatted excitedly, and officers made sure their soldiers were in place and on schedule.
They were briefed in direct language: Any vehicle that breaks down has only five minutes for repair. After that, the truck will be consigned to a wrecker. In case of casualties, the road will be sealed off for evacuation by helicopter.
Roadside bombs remain a threat, Captain Ryan Nugent, the convoy commander, warned.
“Just because this is our final march south doesn’t mean it’s over,’’ Nugent told C Troop. He also reminded them of their unique role in the final withdrawal of US soldiers from Iraq.
“You guys are the last ones here in Baghdad,’’ Nugent said. “You’re making history right now. Think about how far you’ve come.’’
Nugent urged the troops to exit the country in a way that honored the other soldiers from the division who had served in Iraq.
“That’s all I’ve got,’’ Nugent said to the hushed group.
For the 82d Airborne, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., its legacy in Iraq has stretched from the beginnings of the conflict, to the war-changing surge, and through the logistically challenging conclusion.
Before the road march, Captain Jeff Fogle, the chaplain, led the troop in prayer.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,’’ Fogle said, quoting the 23d Psalm.
At 3:13 a.m. Friday, the MRAP driven by McCarty and commanded by McCrery took its place, second in line. It held a 7.62mm machine gun in a swivel turret, and a claustrophobic mass of weapons, coolers, packs, energy drinks, radio equipment, and snaking coils of wire inside.
Belongings that could not be jammed inside were strapped to the sides.
Almost immediately, the convoy halted when two vehicles broke down, prompting an hour’s delay. After the procession restarted, under a light rain, the march through Baghdad passed brightly lit mosques, early commuters, and the rain-slicked spot on a curving bridge where the troop suffered its worst day of the war.
Engineers preceded the troop, checking for explosives on the main route south as a gauzy dawn crept over the spires and low-slung homes of the city and countryside.
Captain Colin Wu, 26, of Foxborough, helped coordinate security. “The biggest concern is we make sure we stay alert,’’ Wu said.
“They’ve been trying to get their licks on us for some time now,’’ said Major Brian Southard, 34, the chief of operations, who was raised in Casco, Maine, and has served four tours in Iraq. “The sigh of relief will come when I recline in that seat on an airplane and don’t have to think about indirect fire.’’
Soldiers in the MRAPs tried to sleep as best they could, contorting themselves on narrow, metal-frame seats between two-hour shifts as drivers, gunners, and dismounted troops who would protect the trucks during attack.
In the daytime Friday, the group came to a temporary halt after a roadside bomb disabled a civilian truck in a preceding convoy. Determined to push through, the C Troop MRAPs went off road, over the sand, and around the stalled convoy.
The next stop was Camp Adder, a desolate expanse of dirt and concrete barriers, the last US base to close and the last stop before Kuwait.
Four hours at the camp allowed the soldiers to eat and sleep, sometimes outside on the hoods of their vehicles, before the 114 miles that remained between them and the border.
For that stretch, the soldiers passed the time by trading tales of Army life, dreading the coming reintegration brief at Fort Bragg - “Don’t spend all your money at once!’’ - and complaining about the pace of the convoy.
“My riding lawn mower goes faster than what we’re doing,’’ McCarty said.
For C Troop, after crossing the border, entry paperwork delayed the convoy again before the push toward the final destination of Camp Virginia in Kuwait.
When they arrived, 27 hours had elapsed since they began moving their vehicles in Taji.
C Troop cleared their weapons of ammunition, assembled for a briefing, and relished being one step closer to home.
And then there was this: “No matter what you do,’’ McCarty said, “it’s always a good deployment when nobody dies.’’
For C Troop, 1st Squadron, 73d Cavalry Regiment, the final deployment in Iraq had been just that.