CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait
It hit Specialist Tyson "Doc" Nettles about an hour after we crossed the border.
"Hey, we're not in Iraq anymore," he shouted, high-fiving Specialist Brandon Oldfather, the gunner in one of 2 nd Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-12 Cavalry Regiment's MRAPS.
The journey had begun in the dead of night, leaving Camp Delta in Basra in three separate convoys of five to six vehicles each. Eighty-four soldiers were on their way home, part of President Obama's promise to get all the troops out of Iraq and back to the U.S. before the holiday season. There are 9,500 troops remaining in Iraq and the enormous operation to get them all out will continue over the next couple of weeks.
We reached the border at 2:20 in the morning, where soldiers were allowed to take off their body armor for the last time.
In the trailing MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle) of the convoy, Sergeant First Class Larry Green, senior enlisted soldier of the platoon, exclaimed, "It feels good to be out of Iraq, finally." He should know. Over the last eight and half years of war, he has spent more time in Iraq than in the U.S.
As the sun rose over the Kuwaiti desert, we arrived at Camp Virginia, one of the large staging bases where soldiers stay for a few days before the flight home. Here, everything gets dismantled and put in large containers for shipping back to the U.S. Unused ammunition is handed in. Equipment in the MRAPS - radios, medevac litters, coolers - are all taken out. Soldiers hand in their weapons.
Soldiers will spend a few days here sleeping, hitting the gym, and finding wireless for their laptops so they can video chat with their families back home. Tired of eating in the regular dining facility? On base there is a McDonald's, a Subway and a Starbucks.
This company of 130 soldiers hopes to be home at Fort Hood, Texas by the middle of the month, where waiting family members will greet them with tears, screams of joy and long-overdue hugs.