There are just a few days left before U.S. Army Capt. Nathan Williams finally gets to go home.
Music fills his company's small headquarters as his men cheerfully haul out computers into shipping containers, shred documents and write handover notes. Already the men have vacated their trailers and are living in air-conditioned tents almost the size of basketball courts.
As violence in Iraq is sharply down and Iraqi forces are taking more responsibilities, the United States is preparing for the withdrawal of all combat forces by August 2010 and everyone else by 2012. That means in the coming days and months, tens of thousands of soldiers will be making the same journey as Williams and his troops, from Iraq to Kuwait and finally to the U.S. — the long journey home.
Williams' Alpha company is known by its foreboding nickname "Apocalypse." Its commemorative T-shirt has a black skull on the back and the ominous words "Straight to Hell!" Yet the company's track record speaks of a war winding down fast and a diminishing role played by the American military in Iraq.
Two platoons from Williams' company, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment have already left for home at Fort Riley, Kansas. But the official end of the 12-month deployment comes when the battalion's colors were folded in a brief ceremony held Sept. 22.
"About a year ago, I told you we will bleed together, we will sweat together and sometimes we will cry together," battalion commander Lt. Col. John Vermeesch tells the soldiers standing in formation at Camp Victory. "In the end, the people of northwest Baghdad are better off."
For the next two days, Williams, 28, and the 63 men left of his company pass the time cleaning their weapons, packing, working out in the gym or watching DVDs on their laptops.
Challenges different than anticipated
For a driven young officer who dreamed of an army career as a boy and a company of men hungry for combat, coming to Iraq in November 2008 posed challenges starkly different from what they had anticipated.
Williams' company was in only two fire fights in the 12 months it spent in Iraq and suffered its only casualty in June, when a soldier lost a foot in a roadside bombing.
The Baghdad district of Hurriyah, where they were stationed, saw some of the most brutal sectarian killings and cleansing in 2006 and 2007. But, by the time Apocalypse's men arrived, it was calm, with the militias blamed for the violence routed by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces earlier in 2008.
Operating out of a Saddam Hussein-era bomb shelter, they patrolled the streets, trained Iraqi security forces, gave out micro grants to small businesses and organized garbage collection. Their job was to keep crime down and make sure the Iraqi forces could sustain operations without U.S. help.
"We had to change our metrics to suit the mission," Williams said. "The soldiers accepted that but did not fully understand it...It remained hard for the soldiers to come to a war and not fight."
By June 30, Apocalypse, like other U.S. military units in urban centers, left Hurriyah in northern Baghdad for Camp Victory six miles to the south. And in the nearly three months the company stayed there, not once did the Iraqis accept Williams' repeated offers of aid.
‘We are taking everyone home’
Still, Williams is in no doubt that he has accomplished his mission.
"My soldiers asked me whether we have succeeded in our mission and I told them flat out 'Yes, we did'," said Williams recalling a Sept. 16 meeting attended by the company's 135 soldiers just days before the first of its platoons left Iraq for home.
"We provided an umbrella of security for Hurriyah's 400,000 people, refurbished 10 schools, two clinics and built three soccer fields and a service station for municipality trucks," said Williams.
"But the most important thing is that we are taking everyone home alive and well."
Williams and the 63 men from his company still in Iraq start the journey home Sept. 24.
They have orders to be packed and ready to move shortly before midnight.
Williams' wife, Jennifer, comes to say goodbye before they left Camp Victory for the nearby Baghdad airport. An army captain herself, she is due to leave for home a few days later.
Sheltering behind a blast barrier wall outside the tent, the couple hug and kiss.
"Honey please do list," says a small note she hands him along with a hot cup of coffee. "Connect the car battery, stop the forwarding of mail, wash dusty dishes and remove the sheets on the furniture," reads the note.
It is almost sunrise when they board the C-130 transport aircraft that takes them to Kuwait. It lands at Ali Al Salem air base nearly an hour later and the men are swiftly moved to Camp Virginia, an inhospitably barren transit facility for U.S. soldiers heading home.
Hours of waiting, roll calls, briefings
The journey out of Kuwait begins soon after sunset on Sept. 26, with the short drive back to Ali Al Salem base in buses with windows covered with curtains.
What follows is a briefing on what the soldiers can or cannot take home — like porn material, pirated DVDs, war souvenirs — and a thorough customs search conducted by Coast Guard personnel. Every item carried by the 310 men and women heading home is individually searched.
There are several more hours of waiting, more roll calls, the brief drama of a rifle missing its soldier and the excitement over a college football game shown on a large screen.
It is almost sunrise when everyone climbs on the buses again and heads to Kuwait's airport, where a World Airways MD-11 sits waiting on the tarmac well away from other aircraft.
The cabin is decorated with the Stars and Stripes and drawings sent by American children. The cockpit and cabin crews express their appreciation over the intercom for what the soldiers have done. They say they are honored and privileged to be taking the soldiers home. Patriotic songs play on the intercom system.
A few minutes after takeoff, most passengers, exhausted, sleep, many with their mouths open.
There is a one-hour refueling stop at Leipzig, Germany, and a longer one at Bangor, Maine, where veterans of the Vietnam and Korea wars are at hand to greet the soldiers.
The journey's final leg to Topeka, Kan., takes just over three hours and the bus ride to Fort Riley another hour. It is almost midnight when the homecoming ceremony began at Fort Riley.
‘Daddy, you are our hero’
Vermeesch, the battalion commander, is the first to enter the ceremony's venue, a gym. It is like the long-awaited appearance on stage of a mega pop star at a massive concert.
There is artificial white smoke, music and a showbiz-style introduction by an announcer, with wild cheers from the crowd of several hundred men, women and children. Most are wearing party clothes. Many carry banners.
"Daddy, you are our hero," announces one banner held high by a child.
A bear of a man, Vermeesch sprints to the middle of the gym floor and stands still facing the crowd of family and friends. After a pause, all 309 men and women who returned home with him follow into the gym floor, again sprinting to their place in a rapidly growing formation.
The cheers became louder as more and more soldiers joined the formation. Silence falls when the national anthem is played, only for the gym to erupt again into a happy mayhem when the "DISMISS!" command is shouted.
Everyone descends from the terraces to greet the soldiers. There are endless kisses, embraces, tears and loving words.
There is no one waiting for Williams. He greets the spouses of some of his men, says goodbye to others. He collects his bags and heads to the town house in the nearby town of Manhattan that he and his wife kept paying rent for while away in Iraq on their second tour since 2005.
He takes a Tylenol pill to help him overcome the jet lag.
Wants to drive with the windows down
Seen the next day from Manhattan, a college town, Baghdad could be on a different planet. His first lunch at home was Mexican at a trendy restaurant.
"Iraq does seem like a far away place, but for some reason I cannot put it out of my mind," Williams, in shorts, a sweat shirt and a Red Sox baseball cap, says.
He could not stop thinking during the journey home or his first day back about what might be happening back in Baghdad or whether he and his men made a big enough difference in the district where they served.
"I think I will always hope that things will continue to improve there. If they don't and they get worse, it will be difficult to accept that all we tried to do there did not result in success," he confides, sipping his second beer.
For now, he says, he wants to do all the things he could not do in Iraq.
He wants to drive his car with the windows down for the rest of the fall and for as long as he can endure going into the cold of a Kansas winter, a contrast to traveling in Iraq in armored Humvees and MRAPS (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) with the windows firmly shut.
"I will wear shorts all the time, I will drink lots of coffee and I will go to work in civilian clothes and change to my uniform when I get there," he enthused.
Williams will be a perfect fit in Manhattan, a college town.
His boyish looks prompt the waitress at the Manhattan restaurant where he ate his first meal out after redeployment to demand to see an ID when he orders his first beer.
Smiling and clearly flattered, he obliges. It's good to be home.