Last U.S. Troops Make Quiet Exit Out Of Iraq

Dec 18, 2011
Originally published on December 18, 2011 6:15 pm

The "end of days," as soldiers were calling it, started at Contingency Operating Base Adder in southern Iraq. The base was the main staging ground for all U.S. troops exiting the country, and it was the last U.S. base to close.

There were a lot of lasts at COB Adder: the last signing ceremony, formally handing the last base over to the Iraqi government, the last briefing, the last patrol, the last hot meal.

The final convoy from the base left Iraq and crossed the border into Kuwait at dawn Sunday.

The 'Most Difficult Undertaking'

Private Jonathan Rosero says he has only done one tour in Iraq. He was barely out of adolescence when the war started. He says it simply hasn't set in that a war that's spanned nearly half his life is ending.

Rosero saw an unusual amount of violence this summer, as Iranian-backed militias pounded bases in southern Iraq. Rosero says when he drives out of the country, he'll mainly be thinking of the way his friend, specialist Daniel Elliot, was killed.

"That was the morning of July 15. We were just starting out on patrol and one of the routes we had to go through was trash everywhere, and next thing I know ... all you see is smoke," he says. "The truck was on fire because it hit first truck and I was second truck."

Gen. Lloyd Austin, who commanded all U.S. troops in Iraq, says he was also worried about roadside attacks as the troops pulled out. He flew down to COB Adder for the last casing of the colors, when the army division's flag is put into its case and sent back home to the U.S.

This war is not like other wars that have ended with the signing of treaties or an exit from friendly territory, Austin says. One American base not far from COB Adder recently had 47 rocket attacks in a single day.

Pulling tens of thousands of troops out in this kind of environment is a logistical marvel, he says.

"You're reposturing while people are still trying to cause you harm," Austin says. "That means that every element that moves has to be protected. It is the most difficult undertaking in our lifetime, in our military career."

Austin later went to a small terminal where soldiers were waiting to fly out.

"What we gotta do when we go back, though, is we gotta heal ourselves, got to work on getting healthy physically and mentally, and then we gotta get better," he told them.

"We've been fighting the same guys for near 10 years," he said. "Now they fight like we do and they look a lot like us. So the next time we take the field, we gotta be a lot better."

A Quiet Departure

As most soldiers prepared to depart by air, the last soldiers on the last guard duty pulled their last hour of duty in a guard tower.

Below, fires lit small encampments of Iraqi soldiers, waiting their turn to take over the base and to see what kind of equipment was left behind. It was a pretty quiet night.

Then the order was given for all guards to come off the towers and drive their trucks to the final staging lanes.

The convoy made it with no attacks and no major incidents. Most soldiers will make it home for the holidays. Still, many questions remain about the life they'll have back home and the country they're leaving behind.

At the border, the very last vehicle to cross stopped. American officials shook hands with their Kuwaiti counterparts, and with that, the gates at the border of Iraq were closed.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. It's official - the last U.S. soldier has left Iraq, and after nearly nine years the Iraq War is over. NPR's Kelly McEvers was there with the final unit as it rolled from Iraq into Kuwait. She sent this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The end of days, as soldiers were calling it, started at Contingency Operating Base Adder in Southern Iraq. The base was the main staging ground for all U.S. troops exiting the country and it was the last U.S. base to close.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: There were a lot of lasts at COB Adder - the last signing ceremony, formally handing the last base over to the Iraqi government; the last briefing, the last patrol, the last hot meal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Apple strudel or M&Ms?

MCEVERS: As he got his dinner, Private Jonathan Rosero said he'd only done one tour in Iraq. He was barely out of adolescence when the war started. He says it simply hasn't set in that a war that spanned nearly half his life was ending. Rosero saw an unusual amount of violence this summer, as Iranian-backed militias pounded bases in Southern Iraq. Rosero said when he drives out of the country, he'll mainly be thinking of the way his friend, Specialist Daniel Elliot, was killed.

PRIVATE JONATHAN ROSERO: That was the morning of July 15. We were just starting on our patrol and one of the routes we had to go through was trash everywhere. The next thing I know: dume(ph). All you see is smoke. The truck's on fire. And it hit first truck and I was second truck.

MCEVERS: General Lloyd Austin, who commanded all U.S. troops in Iraq, said he was also worried about roadside attacks as the troops pulled out.

GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: Right, hut(ph).

MCEVERS: He flew down to COB Adder for the last casing of the colors. That's when the Army's division flag is put into its case and sent back home to the U.S. Austin said this war is not like other wars that have ended with the signing of treaties or an exit from friendly territory. One American base not far from COB Adder recently saw 47 rocket attacks in a single day. Austin said pulled tens of thousands of troops out in this kind of environment is a logistical marvel.

AUSTIN: You're re-posturing while people are still trying to cause you harm. That means that every element that moves has to be protected. It is the most difficult undertaking in our lifetime. So - in our military career.

MCEVERS: General Austin later went to a small terminal where soldiers were waiting to fly out.

AUSTIN: When we go back, though, we've got to heal ourselves. We got to work on getting healthy physically and mentally, and then we've got to get better. We're fighting the same guys near 10 years, when you think about, when Afghanistan started. Now, they fight like we do and they look a lot like us, so. The next time we take the field, we've got to be a lot better.

MCEVERS: As most soldiers prepare to depart by air, the last soldiers on the last shift in the guard tower pulled their last hour of duty. It was a pretty quiet night.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Little fires out there where the...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Little fires, couple of little coyote dogs, camels, the usual.

MCEVERS: The fires lit small encampments of Iraqi soldiers waiting their turn to take over the base and to see what kind of equipment was left behind. Then, the order was given for all guards to come off the towers and drive their trucks to the final staging lane.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCKS MOVING)

MCEVERS: About eight hours later, our part of the convoy crossed the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

AUSTIN: Moving at 3:45.

MCEVERS: The convoy made it with no attacks, no major incidents. Most soldiers will make it home for the holidays. But many questions remain about the life they'll have back at home and the country they're leaving behind. And here...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

MCEVERS: This is the last actual vehicle. These are the last soldiers to exit Iraq. They are stopped at the border. They have closed the gates at the border. American officials are shaking hands with the Kuwaiti officials. And that is it. Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Camp Virginia, Kuwait. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.