KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait | A line of heavily armored American military vehicles, their headlights twinkling in the pre-dawn desert, lumbered past the barbed wire and metal gates marking the border between Iraq and Kuwait early Thursday and rolled into history.
For the troops of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, it was a moment of relief fraught with symbolism but lightened by the whoops and cheers of soldiers one step closer to going home.
Seven years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President Obama's Aug. 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations there.
When 18-year-old Army Spc. Luke Dill first rolled into Iraq as part of the U.S. invasion, his Humvee was so vulnerable to bombs that the troops lined its floor with flak jackets.
Now 25 and a staff sergeant after two tours of duty, he rode out of Iraq this week in a Stryker, an eight-wheeled behemoth encrusted with armor and add-ons to ward off grenades and other projectiles.
"It's something I'm going to be proud of for the rest of my life - the fact that I came in on the initial push and now I'm leaving with the last of the combat units," Sgt. Dill said.
He remembered three straight days of mortar attacks outside the city of Najaf in 2003, so noisy that after the firing ended, the silence kept him awake at night. He recalled the night skies over the northern city of Mosul being lit up by tracer bullets from almost every direction.
Now, waiting for him back in Olympia, Wash., is the Harley-Davidson he purchased from one of the motorcycle company's dealerships at U.S. bases in Iraq - a vivid illustration of how embedded the American presence has become since the invasion of March 20, 2003.
That presence is far from over. Scatterings of troops still await departure, and some 50,000 will stay another year in what is designated as a noncombat role. They will carry weapons to defend themselves and accompany Iraqi troops on missions, but only if asked. Special forces will continue to help Iraqis hunt for terrorists.
So the U.S. death toll - at least 4,415 by Pentagon count as of Wednesday - may not yet be final.
The Stryker brigade's departure left just over 52,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as of Thursday, said Lt. Gen. Robert Cone.
Based in Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state and named for the vehicle that delivers troops into and out of battle, the brigade lost 34 troops in Iraq. It was at the forefront of many of the fiercest battles, including operations in eastern Baghdad and Diyala province, an epicenter of the insurgency, during "the surge" of 2007.
It evacuated troops at the battle of Tarmiyah, an outpost where 28 out of 34 soldiers were wounded holding off insurgents.
The U.S. military kept a tight lid on security, restricting the media embedded with the U.S. troops from reporting on the brigade's movements until they were almost to the border.
The brigade's leadership volunteered to have half of its 4,000 soldiers depart overland instead of taking the traditional flight out, a decision that allowed the unit to keep 360 Strykers in the country for an extra three weeks. The remainder of the brigade flew out with the last of the troops slated to leave late Thursday.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.