In Iraq, combat troops head home to US with guitars, hope
As planned, US combat troops departed Baghdad this weekend. The 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, reflected on their efforts – and Iraq's future.
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The changing role of the soldiers here and the repeated deployments marked the dramatic shifts in this war – from invasion and what was expected to be a quick end to combat, to an escalating multipronged insurgency and civil war that threatened to overwhelm American forces. The military surge that put tens of thousands of extra troops out in the streets was a factor in the dramatic reduction of violence.Skip to next paragraph
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The Strykers – relatively agile, armored, eight-wheeled vehicles designed to move large numbers of infantry soldiers into cities as well as through the countryside – were at the center of offensive operations.
“It was able to get to the area, it was intimidating, it has that lethal sense to it but at the same time when you drop the ramp and walk out with pink backpacks it shows a different kind of war,” says Captain Ophardt, from Jacksonville, Fla., referring to humanitarian missions delivering school supplies to children during the last deployment.
“I came here expecting an enemy that was making its last stand against the foreign infidels – something along those lines – but I mostly just saw some hard stares every once in a while and a bunch of kids asking for soccer balls,” says 1st Lt. Mark Hamilton from Baltimore, Md.
'Those 4,400 people didn't die in vain'
The brigade in its previous deployment during the surge had 37 soldiers killed in action and more than 200 seriously wounded. In another sign of the times, in this latest deployment the brigade’s only fatality was a senior noncommissioned officer dead in an apparent suicide.
While US military deaths in Iraq have topped 4,400, the Army’s major fight has now shifted to Afghanistan.
“For the guys who have been in firefights, lost their friends, lost their family, you don’t want to see another firefight,” says Sgt. First Class Mike Randolph from Tuscumbia, Ala. “For us to come here and not fire a single round, for most of us that means those 4,400 people didn’t die in vain – they’re the reason we didn’t fire a shot.”
The soldiers themselves have had to adjust from all-out combat to the much more nuanced task of identifying potential allies and mentoring Iraqi security forces now in charge.
“Some of the these guys who didn’t get into a gunfight while they were here are questioning themselves and saying, 'How would I do in a gunfight?' and I say ‘killing’s easy, it’s just pull the trigger.... Changing a culture or an ideal is much, much harder,’” says Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins, from Honolulu, Hawaii.
Packing up guitars, heading home
On the sprawling base that has been home to many of the troops for the past year, soldiers packed up guitars and other diversions that got them through the deployment to ship home. By next week, almost the entire 4,000-strong brigade will be back in the United States.
“The future generation of Iraq – they will see the difference and history will tell whether it was worth it or not,” says Chief Warrant Officer Neftali Sanchez from Lares, Puerto Rico. Sanchez served five deployments in Iraq after stop-loss measures extended the active duty of soldiers who would otherwise be allowed to leave.
“There will still be violence – I think there will be a bit of expectation management for the soldiers,” says Colonel Norris. “It’s over for the soldiers. Is it over for the Iraqis? It’s not but it’s their fight now.”