AT THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER — Outside it was pitch dark. The six American soldiers couldn't see much of the desert landscape streaming by outside the small windows of their armored vehicle. They were hushed and exhausted from an all-night drive – part of the last convoy of U.S. troops to leave Iraq during the final moment of a nearly nine-year war.
As dawn broke Sunday, a small cluster of Iraqi soldiers along the highway waved goodbye to the departing American troops.
"My heart goes out to the Iraqis," said Warrant Officer John Jewell. "The innocent always pay the bill."
When they finally crossed the sand berm that separates Iraq from Kuwait, illuminated by floodlights and crisscrossed with barbed wire, the mood inside Jewell's vehicle was subdued. No cheers. No hugs. Mostly just relief.
His comrade, Sgt. Ashley Vorhees, mustered a bit more excitement.
"I'm out of Iraq," she said. "It's all smooth sailing from here."
The final withdrawal was the starkest of contrasts to the start of the war, which began before dawn on March 20, 2003. That morning, an airstrike in southern Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein was believed to be hiding, marked the opening shot of the famed "shock and awe" bombardment. U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed from Kuwait toward the capital, hurtling north across southern Iraq's featureless deserts.
The last convoy of heavily armored personnel carriers, known as MRAPS, left the staging base at Camp Adder in southern Iraq in Sunday's early hours. They slipped out under cover of darkness and strict secrecy to prevent any final attacks. The 500 soldiers didn't even tell their Iraqi comrades on the base they were leaving.
The attack never materialized. The fear, though, spoke volumes about the country they left behind – shattered, still dangerous and containing a good number of people who still see Americans not as the ally who helped them end Saddam's dictatorship, but as an enemy.
About 110 vehicles made the last trip from Camp Adder to the "berm" in Kuwait, the long mound of earth over which tens of thousands of American troops charged into Iraq at the start of the war.
The roughly five-hour drive was uneventful, with the exception of a few vehicle malfunctions.
Once they crossed into Kuwait, there was time for a brief celebrations as the soldiers piled out of the cramped and formidable-looking MRAPs. A bear hug, some whooping, fist bumps and fist pumps.
The war that began eight years and nine months earlier cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury. The bitterly divisive conflict left Iraq shattered and struggling to recover. For the United States, two central questions remain unanswered: whether it was all worth it, and whether the new government the Americans leave behind will remain a steadfast U.S. ally or drift into Iran's orbit.
But the last soldiers out were looking ahead, mostly, and not back. They spoke eagerly of awaiting family reunions – some of them in time for Christmas – and longing for Western "civilization" and especially the meals that await them back home.
The 29-year-old Vorhees was planning a Mexican dinner out at Rosa's in Killeen, Texas. Her favorite is crispy chicken tacos. Another joy of home, she said: You don't have to bring your weapon when you go to the bathroom.
Spc. Jesse Jones was getting ready to make the 2 1/2 hour drive from Ft. Hood, Texas, where the brigade is based, to Dallas. His quarry: an In & Out Burger.
"It's just an honor to be able to serve your country and say that you helped close out the war in Iraq," said Jones, 23, who volunteered to be in the last convoy. "Not a lot of people can say that they did huge things like that that will probably be in the history books."
In the last days at Camp Adder, the remaining few hundred troops tied up all the loose ends of a war, or at least those that could be tied up.
The soldiers at the base spoke often of the "lasts" – the last guard duty, the last meal in Iraq, the last patrol briefing. Even the last Friday was special until it was eclipsed by the last Saturday.
Spc. Brittany Hampton laid claim to one of the most memorable "lasts." She rode the last vehicle of the last convoy of American troops leaving Iraq.
Hampton was thinking of her dad, also a soldier who has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I can't wait to ... call my dad and tell him about this," she said. "He's not going to believe it. He's going to be so proud of me."
She joked that no one was going to believe her back home when she told them she was in the very last vehicle to leave.
"But we really, truly were the last soldiers in Iraq. So it's pretty awesome," she said.
In the final days, U.S. officials acknowledged the cost in blood and treasure was high, but tried to paint it as a victory – for both the troops and the Iraqi people now freed of a dictator and on a path to democracy. But gnawing questions remain: Will Iraqis be able to forge their new government amid the still stubborn sectarian clashes? And will Iraq be able to defend itself and remain independent in a region fraught with turmoil and still steeped in insurgent threats?
President Barack Obama stopped short of calling the U.S. effort in Iraq a victory.
"I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future," Obama said in an interview with ABC News' Barbara Walters, recorded Thursday.
Saddam and his regime fell within weeks of the invasion, and the dictator was captured by the end of the year – to be executed by Iraq's new Shiite rulers at the end of 2006. But Saddam's end only opened the door to years more of conflict as Iraq was plunged into a vicious sectarian war between its Shiite and Sunni communities. The near civil war devastated the country, and its legacy includes thousands of widows and orphans, a people deeply divided along sectarian lines and infrastructure that remains largely in ruins.
In the past two years, violence has dropped dramatically, and Iraqi security forces that U.S. troops struggled for years to train have improved. But the sectarian wounds remain unhealed. Even as U.S. troops were leaving, the main Sunni-backed political bloc announced Sunday it was suspending its participation in parliament to protest the monopoly on government posts by Shiite allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"We are glad to see the last U.S. soldier leaving the country today," said 25-year-old Iraqi Said Hassan, the owner of money exchange shop in Baghdad. "It is an important day in Iraq's history, but the most important thing now is the future of Iraq," he added.
"The Americans have left behind them a country that is falling apart and an Iraqi army and security forces that have a long way ahead to be able to defend the nation and the people."
The convoys that left Sunday were the last of a massive operation pulling out American forces that has lasted for months to meet the end-of-the-year deadline agreed with the Iraqis during the administration of President George W. Bush.
On Saturday evening at Camp Adder, near Nasiriyah and about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, the vehicles lined up in an open field to prepare, and soldiers went through last-minute equipment checks to make sure radios, weapons and other gear were working.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commanding general for Iraq, walked through the rows of vehicles, talking to soldiers over the low hum of the engines. He thanked them for their service.
"I wanted to remind them that we have an important mission left in the country of Iraq. We want to stay focused and we want to make sure that we're doing the right things to protect ourselves," Austin said.
Early Saturday morning, the brigade's remaining interpreters made their routine calls to the local tribal sheiks and government leaders that the troops deal with, so that they would assume that it was just a normal day.
"The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there," said Spc. Joseph, an Iraqi American who emigrated from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted. He asked that his full name be withheld to protect his family.
Camp Adder is now an Iraqi air force base, although they don't have any planes yet. Many of the Americans spent their last day sweeping out the trailers that housed thousands of troops and contractors while Iraqi officers came by to inspect their future domain.
Little by little, the U.S. military gave up pieces of Camp Adder. Soldiers closed down guard towers, turned over checkpoints leading into the base and left hundreds of vehicles, oil tankers and trucks in vast lots with the keys on the dashboard.
The volleyball and basketball courts stood empty. And no one worked out at the gym called "House of Pain."
The roughly 13-square-mile base had at one time been a major way station where troops and supplies often stopped on their way south or north.
But by the time the Americans pulled out for good, their numbers had dwindled so low that the wild dogs that used to be too afraid to come near the living quarters now wandered freely through the rows of trailers and concrete blast walls.
Sgt. First Class Hilda McNamee was the truck commander in the last MRAP to drive out of Iraq. The 34-year-old said when she gets back to Texas, she plans to take her son to the International House of Pancakes.
For her the significance of the last convoy driving out was immediately apparent.
"It means I won't open a newspaper and find out that one of my friends passed away," said McNamee.
She welled up but didn't want to go any deeper. Some memories will always be too fresh.
Going home will also bring new dangers for the troops.
Col. Douglas Crissman, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, said one of his biggest concerns now was making sure that all his soldiers who survived this deployment also survive their re-entry into what is supposed to be a safer world.
"Quite frankly, we lost more soldiers in peacetime in the nine or ten months before this brigade deployed due to accidents and risky behavior ... than we lost here in combat," he said.
His brigade, which controlled the four provinces in southern Iraq, lost three soldiers during this tour. Two were killed by roadside bombs and one was killed by a rocket, likely as he was trying to get to a bunker.
But in the roughly 10 months leading up to their deployment, they lost 13 people. At least one was a confirmed suicide.
The U.S. plans to keep a robust diplomatic presence in Iraq, hoping to foster a lasting relationship with the nation and maintain a strong military force in the region. Obama met in Washington with Prime Minister al-Maliki last week, vowing to remain committed to Iraq as the two countries struggle to define their new relationship.
U.S. officials were unable to reach an agreement with the Iraqis on legal issues and troop immunity that would have allowed a small training and counterterrorism force to remain. U.S. defense officials said they expect there will be no movement on that issue until sometime next year.
In the end, many of the departing troops wrestled with a singular question: Was it worth it?
Capt. Mark Askew, a 28-year-old from Tampa, Florida, said the answer will depend on what type of country Iraq turns into years from now – whether it is democratic and respects human rights.
"People are asking themselves: `Was this worth it?'" he said, speaking to his troops before they set off to Kuwait. "I can't answer that question right now."