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Final U.S. troops roll out of Iraq

Under the glare of news crew lights, the last vehicles cross into Kuwait, to handshakes from their commander and a wave of mixed emotions.

December 18, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Members of the last group of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, are the last U.S. troops to leave Iraq as they cross the border into Kuwait.
Members of the last group of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry, are the last U.S.… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Khabari al Awazem Border Crossing, — The last serial, or U.S. military convoy group, to exit Iraq just after dawn Sunday consisted of 28 vehicles.

In the lead vehicle were Spc. Justin Moreland and Sgt. Rene Sifuentes, who crossed the border into Kuwait in the harsh glare of assembled TV news crews and photographers. They knew the departure of the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq was a big media moment, of course, because it was a huge moment for them too.

Each man had survived multiple tours in Iraq. The war that had consumed their military careers was now over in an instant. They felt an enormous sense of completion and closure. But instead of honking the horn and hollering, they played it cool and waved.

PHOTOS: Last U.S. troops leave Iraq

"I mean, all of a sudden this one is over — it's really the end," Sifuentes, 25, said minutes after his mine-resistant vehicle lumbered past television cameras and applauding soldiers.

For the five soldiers in the 28th and final vehicle, the moment was even bigger. Sgt. 1st Class Hilda McNamee, the vehicle commander, felt a mix of awe and pride as her armored vehicle passed a Kuwaiti border police post, formally ending the war for America.

"We heard about a week ago we'd be the last vehicle — we thought a much higher rank would get it," McNamee, 35, the mother of a 12-year-old boy, said as her crew stepped out to clear their weapons in the desert chill. "It's just such an honor for us."

Seconds after the vehicle entered Kuwait and stopped, a visitor stepped forward. It was Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the tall and imposing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. The crew, already overwhelmed by the media crush, was stunned.

"Wow, we never expected that," said the gunner, Pfc. Anthony Palm. "He shook our hands and told us job well done. That was pretty neat."

For these two vehicle crews, the symbolism of this moment — as freighted in its own prosaic way as the "shock and awe" U.S. assault in 2003 — was almost more than they could fully comprehend. They were cold and filthy, strung out from lack of sleep, and pumped full of adrenaline for their moment on the world stage.

"There's only one word for what I feel, and that's relief," said the last vehicle's medic, Spc. Brittany Hampton, 21. "We can finally just stop and take a breath."

For all the significance of the crossing, there were more mundane concerns. Members of both crews were looking forward to hot showers, hot meals, warm cots, a solid night's sleep. And after that, the chartered flights that will take them home to their families for Christmas.

Moreland was due to arrive home Wednesday — his son Gavin's seventh birthday. Sifuentes was planning a special Christmas at home in Texas with his wife, Nichole.

They were headed to Camp Virginia, a U.S. base an hour south of the border. "First stop, the PX to get a phone card. Second stop, call my wife," Sifuentes said. He wanted her to know he was safely out of Iraq for good.

The two men left Iraq with a sense of accomplishment. Both had helped train Iraqi soldiers and police.

"I saw definite progress in them on each tour," Sifuentes said of his three tours, the first in 2005. "We've built them up, got them ready. Now it's up to them to act on these gifts and the abilities they now have."

In the last vehicle, four crew members were military police who had trained Iraqi police officers. It required patience and perseverance, they said, but they ultimately made a difference in the country.

"You used to have to yell at IP [Iraqi police] to get them to do something," said Sgt. James Alaimo, who first deployed to Iraq in 2006. "Now you just tell them once. They're motivated. And, yeah, I think we made that happen."

Spc. Vergil Heger, a crew member on the last vehicle, was struggling with a welter of emotions. He was a sophomore in high school when the war began, yet he still served two tours in Iraq.

"I feel relieved and satisfied and confident and proud all at once," Heger said. "And I want to get home by Christmas, even if it's on Christmas Eve."

As the crew returned from clearing their weapons half a mile from the border crossing, Gen. Austin showed up again. "We're glad to have you guys back and safe," the general told the crew. "Great job all across the board."

Austin handed each crew member a commemorative commander's coin in honor of their service, then gathered them around and insisted on a group photograph. They grinned and posed, the grunts and the general, and cameras clicked.

For ordinary soldiers to be the last ones to bring a war to a close was special, Sgt. 1st Class McNamee said.

"It's such a privilege, such a means for closure," she said. "We got to shut the door on that chapter and remember all the fallen and all the sacrifices of so many good people."

Just two minutes after her crew left Iraq, Kuwait border police rolled a heavy gate shut with a deep clanking sound. Iraq was sealed off behind them, and there was no looking back.

PHOTOS: Last U.S. troops leave Iraq

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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