By Charlene Gubash, NBC News Producer
CAMP VIRGINIA, KUWAIT – Headlights pierced the pitch black horizon as the first members of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team convoy rolled over the empty flat desert of Iraq into the safety of Kuwait.
Onlookers, military personnel and a few NBC journalists, shared a sense of watching history unfold as the first convoy of the last combat brigade left Iraq on Tuesday, the start of a two-day process to get all of the units over the border and into Kuwait. But the ceremony to greet the incoming soldiers was touchingly simple.
Brig. Gen. Nick Tooliados and his aide stood at attention to salute each passing tank commander and shout a few words of praise. “Good job guys, way to go!” A soldier yelled “Hooah!” in affirmation.
The helmeted tank commanders perched above each massive, heavily armored and armed eight-wheeled vehicle turned and saluted back. A few raised their hands in a victory sign, one high-fived his gunner and smiled.
In a single burst of jubilance, one soldier shouted out the back of his Stryker vehicle, “We won, we're going home! We won! Its over! America, we brought democracy to Iraq!”
‘It’s just a relief’
Further down the otherwise empty road, each driver pulled off the road and easily maneuvered their Strykers into rows. Hatches opened and as soldiers emerged, they stretched and slipped out of their now unneeded flak jackets and helmets.
Then they immediately began what they called “tearing down,” the long process of disarming, stripping down and cleaning their vehicles to prepare them for shipment, a process that would last for days. NBC News delayed this report because of a military embargo until the final unit of the massive convoy crossed the border in the wee hours Thursday.
In temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and after a two-day drive from Baghdad, they began unscrewing heavy machine gun barrels, emptying containers of ammunition by hand and cleaning out candy wrappers and empty cans and bottles from their vehicles. But they didn’t complain. They were relieved to be out of harm’s way.
Staff Sgt. Heon Hong, who hails from Guam, spent three tours in Iraq. For the last 12 months, he trained Iraqi security forces. “Oh it feels good, I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad were done with Iraq. Hopefully I never come back to Iraq.”
“It’s just a relief you know,” said Pfc. Timothy Berrena, originally from Connecticut. “[After] 12 months of straight being in that vehicle – realizing that this may be the last time I wear that kit in the wild is a nice feeling.”
Staff Sgt. Steven Bearor, of Merrimac, Conn., like so many others, thought only of home. Asked what was the best part of coming to Kuwait, he said, “One, you know no one else is going to get hurt, and two, I am going home.”
Some reflected on the small blessings they once took for granted. Pvt. Troy Danahy of Hampton, N.H. , explained what he’d missed during his tour. “Just America in general. I just miss grass, simple, little things, winter, snow and all that.”
Sgt. Keith Chase said he has a new-found appreciation for the safety of American roads. “Just knowing that there’s people not out there trying to hurt my comrades and myself. Knowing that we can drive on safe routes is a big plus, and I won't ever take that for granted again because I know there’s bad guys out there that really want to do us harm.”
Confident they left Iraq in good hands
Most of the soldiers expressed pride in a job well done. Chase’s company cleared Baghdad’s streets of explosives and led the way out of Iraq for the convoy to Kuwait. “My company and my platoon, we did route clearance in and around Baghdad for the last year and we cleared a lot of kilometers up there over the past year.”
Pvt. Nicholas Kelly served with Chase and expressed relief at being done. “Amazing. We finally made it out, we made it back. We’re good. Happy to be here. Happy to go home. We got our mission done successfully and it was good to go.”
Bearor, who helped train Iraqi security forces, felt they had left Iraq’s security in good hands. “We did a damn good job. They [the Iraqi security] are ready to go. I have … faith and confidence they will be able to pull off the job.”
Ready for next job
No complaints were heard as soldiers continued the business of breaking down the tank-like vehicles in which they spent so much time over the past year.
They saw each mundane task as bringing them one step closer to home. But almost everybody we spoke with had already re-enlisted or was planning to re-enlist.
As a result of his service, Pfc. Joshua Abblar, who is originally from the Philippines, became a U.S. citizen during a Fourth of July ceremony presided over by Vice President Joe Biden in Baghdad. He was proud of his work and almost wistful about leaving.
“Our job was to provide security to Iraqi people, go on patrols and make sure nothing was happening. Also clearing roads of IED explosives and supporting the new government that’s forming now,” said Abblar.
This was his first deployment, but he was ready for more. “I just started my job, it’s my first year and I loved every second of it… I feel kind of sad because we got a bond between the people in Iraq.”