By Army Pfc. Kimberly Hackbarth
U.S. Division Center
Aug. 19, 2010 - Through the dusty driver's side window, Army Pfc. Thomas Johnson could see the final stretch of dirt road leading to the border. As one of the lead elements in a company-size formation of Stryker armored vehicles, Johnson and Army Spc. Adam Porter -— both combat engineers with 38th Engineer Company, attached to the 2nd Infantry Division's 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team -- had driven collectively more than 400 miles on the unruly and sometimes deadly roads from here to Kuwait in a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle.
Soldiers of the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team have just completed a yearlong tour supporting the U.S. Division Center area of operations in and around Baghdad, assisting, training and advising the Iraqi security forces.
As a memoir of the last full combat brigade in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which comes to a close at the end of the month, the rest of the crew said their final goodbyes to Iraq into their digital cameras before entering Kuwait and ending their final deployment to Iraq.
The team of combat engineers helped to clear the way for the symbolic convoy out of Iraq, reminiscent of U.S. forces first pushing into Iraq at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, driving down a route similar to the one servicemembers entered the country through in 2003.
The brigade's departure leaves 56,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq. When Operation Iraqi Freedom ends Aug. 31 and the civilian-led Operation New Dawn begins Sept. 1, that number will be down to 50,000. That's when the U.S. military mission in Iraq officially changes from combat to an "advise and assist" capacity, completing a transition that has long been under way.
Most of the Stryker brigade soldiers, including Johnson and Porter, said they did not expect to leave Iraq behind a steering wheel, driving to Kuwait.
"I thought we'd fly out of here," Porter said.
But the mode of exit didn't matter to the soldiers, as long as it meant they were returning home soon.
While people in the back of Strykers and MRAPs had the opportunity to nap during the two-day trip, the gunners, drivers and vehicle commanders stayed awake, focused and alert to their surroundings. Energy drinks, daytime naps and casual conversations among crew members kept the weary drivers going.
"I was thinking about doing my job proficiently and getting everybody there safely. If I don't get everyone there safely, then we fail the mission. And I'm all about completing the mission," said Johnson, mentioning that part of his mission was returning home to his wife.
The team made it without having to deal with any attacks, a major improvement from veteran combat engineers' experiences during earlier rotations. Because security has improved over time as Iraq has become more stable, certain aspects of later deployment cycles have changed as well.
"Yeah, we trained to kick in doors, we trained to clear buildings, we trained to react to contact, but every single one of us knew what we were going to be doing — riding in a truck looking for [roadside bombs]," Porter said.
For Johnson, a Phoenix native, and Porter, from Ashland, Wis., training for driving the Buffalo-style MRAP -- a large vehicle with a mechanical arm for checking potential threats -- began during the brigade's June rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. Soldiers trained on a 5-ton truck frame with a Buffalo cab welded onto it. It was not until arriving in Iraq they had an opportunity to get behind the wheel of the real thing.
A year later, as Johnson drove his team past the gates leading to Kuwait and concluding their last patrol in Iraq, he said he felt a long-awaited feeling.
"It's a feeling of success that you did what you were expected to do for a whole entire year, then coming to the end of your tour and finishing it out strong," he said.