The tale of the American military's last days in Iraq has many faces, from the soldiers desperate to impart last lessons to the uncertainties gripping their Iraqi colleagues. But for many US troops, it is a gentle unwinding as the mementos that have for eight years made American bases in Iraq some version of "home" – from rooftop driving ranges to copy machines to chai lattes – slowly disappear.
As they log their last helicopter rides in-country and their farewell meetings with Iraqi counterparts, troops here admit to a certain wistfulness at their imminent departure.
They tromp through the acres of gravel that have long lent US bases here a perpetual grey patina, taking souvenir photos of state flags and unit logos painted and signed on the high concrete barriers, as they pose with their comrades in arms.
They take in rooftop panoramic views of Baghdad to say goodbye.
But most of all, they are immersed in the considerable undertaking of packing to be ready for the trip home.
The sundries shop at Sather Air Base – where soldiers stock up on snacks, sodas, and a reliable array of motorcycle-themed magazines – recently ran out of souvenir Iraq travel coffee mugs. Shop employees say they are struggling to keep up with demands for Oreos as troops leave and State Department employees arrive. (The base has been renamed the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center in a nod to the State Department's new and increased role in the country.)
“I think they snack more – they’re at their desks all day,” one worker opines of the new diplomatic corps. “The soldiers were always moving around.”
The base coffee spot, the Green Bean, is normally a 24-hour operation, fueling the considerable demands of deployed forces. Now it’s a mere 9-to-5 operation. As a couple of US service members swing by to order some spicy chai lattes, they learn that the supplies of this popular beverage are all gone.
Nearby, Coke machines are open and defrosting. At the tiny base chapel, Bibles are boxed up and services have been suspended for the time being. A once-gurgling courtyard fountain – actually a sand-colored, water-filled tarp ringed with stones and pink artificial roses – is quiet and unplugged.
Pickup trucks drive by filled with office chairs, as well as hard drives and copy machines bound for destruction. Soldiers note that Iraqi forces – perpetually short of such office supplies – would especially love to inherit the latter, but it’s the sort of hand-me-down that comes with security considerations.
Once on the road, the trucks vie for right-of-way with old school buses. They will soon be filled with US troops bound for their last flight out in what has often been a long and grueling series of deployments to a country where they have lost loved ones, limbs, and, occasionally, witnessed the lives they once knew back home fall apart.
Amid the packing chaos, some soldiers find time for reflection. In Baghdad's international zone, they occasionally make their way through the lobby of the former Ba’ath Party headquarters, now decorated for the holidays with a 10-foot-high pyramid of green soda cans, up the stairs to the roof.
To walk on any rooftop during the height of the Iraq war entailed a fair amount of ducking and running to avoid the potshots of snipers or the occasional rocket. It was the sort of place troops didn’t want to be without some kneepads handy to help them keep low – an item of sports gear that quickly became ubiquitous among infantrymen waging urban warfare.
Today, a different sort of sports gear – a couple dozen golf clubs – lay in a bin beside a weathered workout mat here, doubling as a patch of astroturf. They have been left by visitors over the months as security has improved and golf aficionados could sneak away to take a few practice swings at the makeshift rooftop driving range ringed with netting.
A quintessential Baghdad panorama reaches to the horizon – the crossed swords of the Saddam-era parade grounds, the copper-domed review stand, the slow curve of the Tigris River.
There are, too, some new landmarks dotting the landscape. A crane beside the US compound is working on what will soon be a luxury hotel. The Iraqi decision to build the hotel, some US officials gripe, was a bit of a “slap in the face” to the Americans who remain here. US security experts did not relish the thought of providing a potential attack point for insurgents, with high floors that could make it easy to survey the embassy compound.
But, as troops shrug and say in what has become a popular mantra, “It’s their city now.”
And that city is, for the present, calm as once-war-torn cities go. The traffic jams at rush hour have become a welcome sight.
“I love seeing these traffic jams,” says Colonel Scott Alpeter, the chief of Army aviation for the new Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq (OSC-I), who deployed to the war in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011. “I remember when everything was blown up and on fire.”
For his part, Lt. Col. Thomas Hanson, also of the OSC-I, compares flying over Baghdad these days to his previous tours. The city, once so busy with the business of war, seems quiet, he says: “It’s like visiting your favorite beach town in the winter.”