Dec. 14, 2011— -- Camp Victory, once the site of Saddam Hussein's former palace, is a military ghost town now. A base where 70,000 Americans once lived, the base was eerie and barren as the last of the U.S. troops departed Iraq this week with a one-way ticket.
Army Pfc. Joseph Kelley, who was 11 when the war began in 2003, smiled wide as he patrolled Baghdad presumably for the last time today. He wasn't the only one.
Across the world, in Fort Hood, military families waited anxiously for the return of their loved ones. Five-year-old Scottie Mathews, clutching his "papa bear," had been counting the days for the return of his father, Army Staff Sgt. Ferren Mathews. Across town, Raitasha Green and her three children also waited patiently, as did Jennifer Smitt.
Mathews, Sgt. First Class Larry Green and Staff Sgt. James H. Courter are part of one of the last units to leave Iraq. Among them, they boast 11 tours of the war-torn country.
For Courter, 28, the final departure from Iraq marked the closure of a long and turbulent decade.
"I made a promise to myself… [that] I'm going to finish it," Courter, Smitt's husband, said of his commitment to join the military to fight terrorists. "It's personal to me, you know. What's been lost here and what's been gained here, it's close to my heart. You know, too many people gave too much so I'm actually honored to be here and be the last unit out of Iraq."
Just one semester into college, Courter dropped out in 2001 to join the armed forces. His unit was one of the first to be deployed to Iraq when the United States invaded the country in 2003. Since then, Courter has been back four times, and the price he paid for his duty wasn't small.
Courter's first wife, to whom he was married for four years, cheated on him with another soldier. He discovered that the son she had wasn't his, and then suffered from anxiety attacks and depression as a result of his family issues. But Courter has no regrets about his service, although the United States eventually did not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq nor any links to the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center Sept. 11, 2001.
"I'd say, the cost could have been a lot worse but everybody pays up a different way," Courter said. "I mean, some people lost their wives, their families, some people lost their sanity, you know. But I don't think anybody in the military will ever tell you it wasn't worth it. We keep putting ourselves in these situations again and again so somebody else doesn't have to."
Mathews knows very well what it's like to be in the line of fire. In his three tours in Iraq, the 38-year-old father of three has narrowly survived six bomb attacks. On his last deployment, he barely made it out alive. Mathews was inside a flaming vehicle that was attacked by insurgents, and later featured in one of their videos.
Mathews is thrilled to be coming home, but like many of his counterparts, he is troubled by the personal costs that both Americans and Iraqis have had to pay. Nearly 4,500 Americans and 104,000 Iraqis have died since the war began, and more than 32,000 Americans have been wounded.
"It's been very difficult. You can't put a price on people's lives to begin with, and the benefit of being here this whole time; a lot of it is still to be seen," Mathews said. "It does take its toll when you have family and friends, they get wounded, they get hurt. They leave because, you know, they've been coming every other year and it's taking its toll on them. … The cost, the toll of constantly, you know, moving so many men back and forth, men and woman, it eventually tires people out."
The stories of sacrifice run deep among the thousands of soldiers who were deployed to Iraq.
On four tours to Iraq, Green has spent more than half his life in the past nine years away from home, missing birthdays, anniversaries and many "firsts" of his children.
"I look at it like a loss," he said. "I look at it as something that I will never have the opportunity to re-live: First steps, first words, first days of school, and there is no type of accomplishment that I will be able to achieve that will meet me with that satisfaction that I wasn't there to take part in."
To this day, the 33-year-old has continuous nightmares about being in Iraq.
One of his most vivid memories, he recalls, is of killing an 8-year-old boy who was throwing grenades over the military's compound wall in Fallujah.
"Once you have taken a life, there is a portion of that person that travels with you forever," Green said. "There is a nightmare that continues and continues and continues, and pretty soon you learn to just accept that it's just a living part of you that you won't get rid of. ... I mean to the point where you can smell the air, and you can feel the heat off of the weapon, you can see that individual's eyes, you can see what happened, frame for frame, over and over."
But like many of his fellow soldiers, Green says without hesitation that if he would have to serve in Iraq, he would do it all over again, "the exact same way." The father of three says he is proud to have played a part in history and moving Iraq into a different direction, one he hopes will be for the better.
Iraq and the United States face a new chapter and a new set of challenges as U.S. troops withdraw. For the United States, the growing influence of Iran on one border and Syria on the other is a continuing cause of concern. Iraq continues to be rocked by Sunni-Shia, Kurdish-Iraqi violence and the absence of a strong, stable regime. The threat of al Qeada also remains, but U.S. generals say it's time for the Iraqi security forces to take over.
"We know that al Qaeda is going to do what they've always done," Gen. Lloyd Austin said. "They are going to continue to try to focus on the government and the Iraqi security forces. And the Iraqi security forces are going to have to deal with that, and I think they can.
"They are going to have to work hard at it. They are going to have to improve their intelligence. They are going to have to continue to work on their logistics as well, that's still a work in progress."
For U.S. soldiers leaving Iraq, this week is momentous.
"I stopped, took a second, looked around, smelled the air as only Iraq can smell, saw the sunset," Courter said, laughing, of what's expected to be his last departure from the country. "It was an indescribable feeling, knowing you had been here so much, all the cost of what we have done here. It's finished."