K CROSSING, Kuwait — A U.S. military convoy sliced through the flat Iraqi desert before first light, carrying the last troops safely into Kuwait and ending America’s costly and divisive war in a troubled land.
(Specialist Jay Thomas, left corner, of Richmond, VA, and other soldiers from 1st Calvary, from Fort Hood, Texas, load their bags for the final time before leaving Iraq and Kuwait for the United State. They will be home within days, in time for Christmas with their families.)
When relieved soldiers got out on the other side Sunday, shouts of “Going home!” and “It’s over!” mingled with bear hugs and high-fives. One soldier hollered, “I’m going to Disneyland!” Another, “A sweet, sweet Christmas.”
The final vehicle passed a fortified Kuwaiti border police post eight years, eight months and 28 days after U.S. forces poured across the same border, 150,000 strong, sweating inside bulky chemical and biological protective suits, but convinced of a swift and certain victory. Once Saddam Hussein fell, the war would end and they would all soon return home.
Instead, two countries with little understanding of each other collided in a long, brutal war that exacted a terrible price from both. And as America takes its leave, they separate with very different understandings of what happened between them — and what lies ahead.
The United States has seen its reputation stained by a pre-emptive invasion in the name of weapons of mass destruction that never materialized. As of Sunday, 4,484 U.S. service members had died in the war, and 32,200 had been wounded, according to icasualties.org. The conflict cost hundreds of billions of dollars, even as Americans descended into economic misery.
Iraq erupted into a nightmare of sectarian hatred unleashed by the fall of Saddam’s suffocating dictatorship. An estimated 104,000 to 113,000 Iraqi civilians died, according to the Iraq Body Count website, most of them killed by other Iraqis. The legacy of the bloodletting is a deeply flawed democracy that has been unable to keep Iraqis safe.
Returning American forces speak with pride of eliminating a dictator and creating conditions for free elections. They armed and trained Iraqi security forces that have grown more confident with each passing year. If they did not eliminate raging violence, they at least reduced it significantly during the last four years.
But the war imposed a crushing burden on American troops and their families. Some served three, four or even five tours, and marital strains and divorces multiplied. Children went without mothers or fathers. Birthdays and anniversaries flew by, unattended.
The knock at the door by uniformed service members became all too common in the homes of men and women serving in Iraq. At the worst of it, in mid-2007, death notifications averaged four a day.
Spc. Christopher Neiberger, 22, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad on Aug. 6, 2007, one of five U.S. soldiers to die that day. His sister, Ami Neiberger-Miller, is relieved to see the troops finally coming home, but it also means a chapter is closing.
“It means he is really not coming home,” she says. “While it’s been four years for us, there is a piece of it — our grief — that is always the same, just as fresh and raw as the first day it happened. We just get better at carrying it.”
Maj. Gen. David Perkins and Ziad Taha have never met. But their paths certainly crossed — on April 7, 2003, when the U.S. combat brigade that Perkins commanded opened fire on the prosperous roadside nursery that Taha operated in Baghdad.
The nursery had been taken over by Islamic militants from Syria and the Iraqi Republican Guard, despite Taha’s pleas for them to set up fighting positions elsewhere. When the armored column charged into Baghdad, the nursery was raked by tank and machine-gun fire.
Taha’s family hid in their home behind the nursery. They saw a neighbor blown apart as he tried to retrieve his car. They saw the Syrians and Iraqi soldiers eviscerated by tank rounds as they fired from behind flimsy clay flower pots.
When it was over, the family had survived, but the nursery was ruined.
Perkins’ so-called thunder run into Baghdad captured Saddam’s Republican Palace and government complex, toppling the regime.
Perkins, then an Army colonel, served two more tours in Iraq, the last one ending in November. He rose to two-star general. He served as the chief military spokesman in Iraq, with responsibility for Iraqi governance, politics, oil and elections.
Over the years, he drove past the rebuilt nursery many times. Each time his thoughts turned to the chaotic, confusing opening act of the American experience in Iraq, and the ensuing years of hardship.
“The Iraqis like to say we made mistakes, that we didn’t understand Iraq, and they were right,” Perkins says now. “But they do give us credit for learning over the years.”
He’s proud of what U.S. troops accomplished, but worries that the Iraqis aren’t quite ready for democracy. His Iraqi colleagues are uneasy about the American withdrawal, Perkins says, and he fears that deep sectarian divisions might allow extremists to prevail.
He says of Iraqis: “Can they trust themselves? Have they reached political maturity? It’s really up to them now.”
Taha, 34, has yet to recover from the U.S. invasion and occupation. His mother died in August 2003, and his father in December of that year, killed by “psychological stress” from the invasion, Taha says.
He rebuilt his nursery, only to see it damaged year after year by rocket fire and roadside bombs. He abandoned the business in 2009, when Iraqi security forces lined the highway with massive concrete “T-walls,” the gray, monolithic barriers that now define the landscape of Baghdad and cut the nursery off from its customers.
Taha fled his Sunni Muslim neighborhood, Saydiya, now considered the most dangerous in Baghdad and still a hotbed for insurgents.
He took a job as a mechanic, but longs for his prewar days as a successful businessman.
He resents the Americans who searched his home at night, terrifying his wife and young son. Yet Taha has mixed feelings about the U.S. withdrawal. He worries that violence will erupt in the security vacuum left behind.
“If their departure makes Iraq more secure, it’s a good thing,” he says, stepping over dusty pots and overgrown plants at his abandoned nursery. But “they invaded our city and changed everything about our country. Nothing good can come of that.”
Sgt. 1st Class Karl Akama is slumped in a chair, eyes half-closed, bare feet raised, boots on the floor. He’s just back from Iraq, safely in Kuwait, and he’s exhausted. Since 2004, he’s spent 48 months — four solid years — on four Iraq deployments. Now he’s finally going home for good.
“Go, come back. Go, come back,” he says of his life for the last seven years. “I have a house in Texas I visit. I don’t really live there.”
A wife and seven kids live in that house outside Fort Hood. Akama has watched his spouse struggle without him, and his children grow up with Dad gone half the time.
Yet for all the sacrifices he and his family have made, it was worth it, he says, for him and for his country.
“We accomplished a lot,” he says from Camp Virginia, about an hour from the border with Iraq. “Just spreading the concept of democracy in this part of the world, it’s worth it for that alone.”
Akama, 33, says he has witnessed enormous progress since 2004. The changes were difficult to see during his tours, but quite obvious each time he returned to Iraq.
The police and army became better equipped and more professional, he says. The quality of life for ordinary Iraqis has improved. All of that, he says, was won by American commitment and suffering.
The war cost Akama a close friend: a fellow soldier and the godfather to one of his children, killed by a roadside bomb at the very end of his tour.
“That was tough,” Akama says. “I had to explain to my kids why he wasn’t coming home.”
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, which counsels families of the fallen, calculates that the war left 2,468 widows or widowers, 3,141 orphans and 8,974 parents who lost a son or daughter.
The psychological toll has also been steep. Between 2005 and 2010, military personnel who had served or were serving in Iraq or Afghanistan committed suicide at the rate of one every 36 hours, according to a study by the Center for a New American Security. In July 2011 alone, there were 33 suicides.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is widespread, with 170,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans having been diagnosed with the condition, according to the Veterans Administration. More than 20,000 are homeless, and thousands more live with traumatic brain injuries.
Akama feels like a survivor. He escaped too many close calls to count: roadside bombs, snipers, rockets and mortar rounds. His family is strong and intact, thanks to “a very good wife.”
“Let’s just say I’m glad I’m out of there,” he says, his voice low and weary. “I’m glad it’s finally over.”
American soldiers shot an Iraqi army captain and left his body to rot in Suhad Khadim’s garden. Wild dogs feasted on the corpse.
That is Khadim’s memory of the April 2003 fall of Baghdad. And then things got worse.
The American invasion so disrupted the country that she and her family were forced to abandon their home. Sunni Muslim gunmen “ethnically cleansed” her Mansour neighborhood of Shiite Muslims such as Khadim, 38, and her husband, Jalal, 42.
Their fine house, with its rose-studded garden, is home to someone else now. The Khadim family, after fleeing to Syria, returned to Baghdad and squatted in a drafty, two-bedroom apartment in an abandoned doctor’s clinic.
Once, they were solidly middle class. Now they live like vagabonds, their two boys and two girls crammed into dank, dark rooms. They live in fear of roving gunmen. They keep the curtains closed and the door locked.
Suhad Khadim blames it all on the Americans. She is a woman who speaks her mind. It is rare for Iraqi men to defer to their wives, but Jalal lets Suhad do the talking.
“We thought the Americans would bring us a better life, but they brought us nothing but suffering,” she says, biting off the words.
They toss their duffel bags into a waiting truck, as happy and carefree as frat boys. They are out of Iraq at last, preparing for a final bus ride that will take them to an airport in Kuwait for the trip home in time for Christmas.
They are almost giddy with relief, but also earnest and contemplative as they reflect on a war no one expected to last nearly nine years.
Army Pfc. Joshua Jones, 22, who served two tours in Iraq, is convinced the American effort has made Iraq a better place.
“We set up a democracy,” he says. “We helped Iraq become more like America.”
He pauses to consider what might come next. “In the next 10 to 20 years, well, I could see us having to come back.”
Pfc. Royce Brunner, 21, was 13 when U.S. forces first entered Iraq. He didn’t understand the rationale for the war then, but he does now.
“We were there to defend our country against terrorism,” he says. “We went in from stopping people in the Middle East from killing us. We succeeded. Our families are safer now.”
After two grueling tours of Iraq, Spc. Jay Thomas is getting out of the service. He carried out his mission, and so did his country.
“It took long enough, but now it feels good,” he says. “But it was an experience I never want to experience again.”