By Army Pfc. Kimberly Hackbarth

U.S. Division Center

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, 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

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.



  1. Okay Facebook friends, I get this column from Maj. Pain a couple, three times a week. I’m guessin’ it depends on how many snipers he’s duckin’ or how many insurgents he has hangin’ over a waterin’ troth. So read, enjoy, shed tears, but in general thank him for his service to his country.
    Okay Maj. Pain, lets see if this non-geek has done everything the right way and this goes to my Facebook page.

  2. Got a question for you Marine. Whats your oppinion of those in the U.S. who claim to be combat veterans but their association only asks that they have served in a war zone? I personally think its swiping valor and being a bogus imposter.

  3. Thank you to all of our Troops that have served and continue to serve. You all and your families are a national treasure this nation had best not take for granted.

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