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

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A soldier gestures from the gun turret of the last vehicle in a convoy of the US Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011. The brigade's special troops battalion are the last American soldiers to leave Iraq.
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
A soldier gestures from the gun turret of the last vehicle in a convoy of the US Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011. The brigade's special troops battalion are the last American soldiers to leave Iraq.

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.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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