U.S. soldier Natasha Mozgovaya
U.S. soldier returning from Iraq embracing a loved one in Fort Bliss, Texas. Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
Text size

FORT BLISS, Texas - Surprisingly, the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq after over eight years of war (with 4,474 U.S. servicemen and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed ) did not get much attention in Israel, despite concerns about the power vacuum that might be left and the growing influence of Iran, which could turn Iraq into another forward base. American officials made every effort not to make it look like a half-baked retreat, with Vice President Joe Biden visiting Iraq and President Barack Obama hosting the Iraqi prime minister and promising continued strong relations.

In Israel, the war was as controversial as it was in the United States. At first, Israelis were happy Saddam Hussein was gone. But then analysts started asking whether his demise wasn't the best present the Iranians could hope for.

As for Americans, it's too early to say how they will remember this war. In the short term, many would probably rather forget it. In the long term, it will be interesting to see whether the theory that Iraq was the trigger for the Arab spring proves itself.

Most soldiers will be home before Christmas. The returning troops are glad to hug their loved ones and not eager to talk about the deeply divided country they are leaving behind, or about the war. Most are still not sure what the war was all about.

At the airport of the Fort Bliss base in Texas, the excited screams of family members filled the air even before the wheels of the charter plane bringing hundreds of soldiers back from Iraq touch the ground. Kids, wives, parents and siblings jumped excitedly behind the rope, holding balloons and waving colorful posters.

"We are here to pick up our daddy," read one. "You are a hero!" said another. One of the wives held up a more intimate message: "Sgt! Your final mission is tonight!"

'The most exciting thing'

The soldiers, tired from a long flight, emerged from the plane, but the long wait wasn't over yet for the families that hadn't seen them in months. First they had to hand in their weapons and gear and sign some papers. Only then, in a massive column, did they pound on the steel door separating them from the hall where their relatives were waiting. The door started lifting, the hall filled with smoke and the troops stepped in - still unable to go to their families, until they heard the long-awaited "Dismissed! Happy holidays!"

Then the scramble began: hundreds of people trying to find their relatives. These were exciting moments for everyone - the girl in an evening dress with a large M-16 tattoo and "US army" on her bare shoulder, the fathers who have barely seen their newborns. There were happy arguments: Some soldiers were eager to go to a restaurant, but the kids wanted to show them the Christmas decorations. The lone soldiers were headed for the barracks after receiving a paper with phone numbers, in case they felt they needed someone to talk to. They have 48 hours of freedom before they start "reintegrating," as it's called here.

For Sgt. John Salinas, an infantryman from the 4th Battalion, 6th Infantry, 4th Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the happiest moment was holding his 4-month-old son, who was born less than a week after he deployed to Iraq for the second time.

"It was the most exciting thing in my life," he said. "He stared at me and smiled and I think he recognized me."

Salinas had no complaints about his final deployment. "It was good: Operation New Dawn, basically transferring the responsibilities to the Iraqi people. We had only one casualty, wounded. All my soldiers came back to their families, so it's easy to come home when people are not depressed because of the friends they lost."

He didn't want to talk about the meaning of the war. "My job was just daily missions," he said. "Let those above think about the bigger picture. I don't feel we were kicked out - I think they just wanted to start handling things by themselves. This time, I had a lot more interaction with Iraqi police, army. Overall they are very nice people.

"In a way, they wanted us to stay there, but knew we had to leave. From what I saw personally, they took charge at the checkpoints, it went pretty smoothly. Their overall reaction was happy that we were leaving, but I guess it's because it's a new start for them."

The real challenge

When I asked Command Sgt. Maj. Sa'eed Mustafa, who has served in the military 27 years, if he would miss Iraq, he said he might miss certain things. "There were people you had a relationship with," he said. "One day I might even come to visit." Often, local kids and even adults waved at the soldiers, greeting them, so some of them might miss the U.S. troops too, he added - though "not all of them, of course."

He didn't feel America was fleeing. "We're returning Iraq to the Iraqis," he said. "It was planned by the previous president. I don't see it as a hasty retreat. I have great faith in the Iraqi people. We worked with them, I feel they are ready."

Mustafa converted to Islam during his deployment to Somalia, long before the 9/11 attacks.

How did he feel as a Muslim about the war in Iraq, which many Muslims weren't happy about?

"I am a career soldier," he said. "I served in Turkey and Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and many other places. It was a mission, and I did it. I voluntarily accepted this way of life. Now it feels great to be back home, and to be a part of history."

He knows that for many soldiers, the challenges begin with coming back home. Given the expected cuts in the military budget and consequent reductions in the number of soldiers serving, many will have to reenter a society that barely knows them.

"We had it after 'Desert Storm,'" Mustafa said, using the army's name for the 1991 Gulf War. "I tell my soldiers that they have to stay focused, stay out of trouble, to remain competitive if they look for a job after the service. There is a sense of accomplishment in missions overseas, but there are no less important missions at home."