Forty or so armored MRAP trucks power past me in a cloud of dust and diesel. The desert air is cold, and the sun is setting too on America’s involvement in Iraq.
“We made it safe and all the guys are alive. I’m the happiest guy in the world right now,” says 2nd Lt. Jared Hansen, of Kanab Utah.
His unit was one of the last to leave Camp Victory, America’s former Iraq military headquarters.
“Our platoon was standing on towers guarding Victory with our trucks running. We were on 12-hour shifts keeping the base secure until the very last minute.” At the moment the Iraqis took over the base, Hansen’s team took their guns from the watchtowers and mounted them in the trucks.
“They signed the papers saying we own it now, and we drove the heck out of there.”
These soldiers are joining thousands of others at Camp Virginia in Kuwait, the transit point for many troops departing Iraq. This is where hundreds of trucks are cleaned up and checked for redeployment. The military doesn’t call this a withdrawal, but a reposturing.
“Our message to our friends, our allies and our potential adversaries is very clear: we have more than 40 thousand American troops that remain in the Gulf region. We’re not going anywhere,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Senate committee hearing in November. His words widely seen aimed at Iran.
“One of the most dangerous and demoralizing aspects of the past year and a half has been the growth of Iranian influence in Iraq,” says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. “The Iranians have painstakingly rebuilt their position in Iraq, using money, using weaponry, and today Iran’s influence in Iraq is probably greater than American influence.” United States diplomats will try to counter Iran’s influence. There’ll be up to 17,000 staff at the embassy here in Baghdad, at a handful of places elsewhere in Iraq.
Iraq cost America eight and a half years and around a trillion dollars (although the estimates vary). Do the Iraqis appreciate all that money and blood? They do, says Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.
For American taxpayers, Iraq remains a burden. There’ll be the cost of paying for wounded Veterans. The V.A. estimates a quarter of Veterans bear scars, physical or mental. But has America created another Vietnam generation? Psychiatrists at Camp Virginia tell me they adopted a new practice in Iraq; working on the front line to intercept stress cases before they became serious.
There’s little apparent stress among soldiers decompressing in the McDonald’s here. Sergeant David Mullins, from Merino California, says three tours of Iraq and one of Afghanistan has given him experiences he never thought possible. But he won’t re-up next time; he wants to use the G.I. Bill to go to college and start a family. Private Tim Koetje is getting out too saying: “I got a new son I’m looking forward to seeing. I haven’t met him yet.”
But plenty of soldiers leaving on flights to Fort Hood and other U.S. bases back home say they’ll stick with the military despite the prospect of further battlefield tours in years ahead. “We’re like that one percent of America that choose to join the Army,” says Sergeant Damarra Middleton. “I have that passion.”
And Specialist Colt Scally, from Rialto California, says tours don’t trouble him. What would is the health of America’s civilian jobs market.
Listen HERE to some of Alastair Wanklyn’s reporting from Baghdad: