The sands and weather in Kuwait have not changed much since the last time I was here. It was almost nine years ago, in 2003, as the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq, just over Kuwait’s northern border. But this time, in December 2011, I watched the troops moving in the opposite direction, leaving Iraq instead of going in.
The soldiers we met were pouring into Camp Virginia, which is one of the U.S. bases in this country that resembles a wasteland. In Kuwait there are no hills, no rivers, no grass. Only sand, which is blown into the air, then into your eyes, lungs and throat. In order to withdraw the American forces out of Iraq this quickly, they mostly drive south so that they can organize their equipment and teams in a country where there are no insurgents or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In this case we met with those of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division and then accompanied them on the flight home to Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas.
But before we left I had the chance to return to that very border spot where I had entered Iraq on March 20, 2003, embedded with the Marines, the 1st LAR. Our ABC team then was the best of the best. Cameraman Matt Green had covered the world from wars to peace to the top of mountains including Mount Everest. Soundman James Brolin was not only experienced, he was also the funniest man I have ever worked with. Humor is the best tool for controlling our stress. None of us at that moment would have predicted how long this war would last or how dangerous it would become. Four years after the three of us crossed into Iraq, James was killed by an IED on a street outside Baghdad. It was very strange to be back at that border this time, standing there with both Kuwaiti and Iraqi soldiers and shaking their hands.
The other point of our story here was not just the withdrawal, the sacrifices or the accomplishments of the troops. We also like to tell the stories about the families. The fighters in the deserts get most of the public attention, while the wives, husbands and children at home get very little. But for this trip of the 4th Brigade, it was time to head home for Christmas, which was in some ways an unexpected gift. They were only deployed on this one for about four months, cut short as the Obama administration rushed to meet its deadline. Their flight home lasted 31 hours, stopping in Germany and Maine before landing at Fort Bliss, to be welcomed by music, cheers and huge hugs from their families.
It has been a long road home, but a good one, and for me the best moments are those when we hear the words from their kids. Sgt. Tessania Alston was returning from her second trip to Iraq when she settled in with her husband and three kids. I asked her little girl Ymonie why she thought her mom was at war and why she still loves her so much. “Because she is in the Army,” she said, “and she is saving the world.”
Watch the full story on “20/20″ tonight at 10 p.m. ET.