Iraq war ends: what it was like on the last US flight out
The last military flight of the Iraq war left the country Saturday night. For many of the jubilant troops aboard the C-17, the Iraq war had come full circle, and it was time to go home.
TALLIL AIR BASE, IRAQ
The Air Force crew manning the C-17 cargo plane has been told on previous missions that theirs will be the final flight out of the country in which America waged war for 8-1/2 years.Â
â€śTheyâ€™ve said it was the last flight to us three or four times,â€ť says Staff Sgt. Kristi Benton, reading a Dean Koonz novel.Â
But these had been false alarms, due to routine logistical swaps and tweaks.
Presently, however, the Air Forceâ€™s top noncommissioned officer in Iraq, Command Chief Master Sgt. Mike Hanning, boards the plane.Â
â€śIâ€™ve been waiting for this day for a long time,â€ť he says, settling into a jump seat.
As a pair of two-star generals appear as well â€“ the highest-ranking Air Force commanders in Iraq â€“ the crew begins to believe it: They will be the last airmen on the last American military flight of this war.
Maj. Gen. Anthony Rock, in charge of the Air Forceâ€™s training mission in Iraq, climbed to the cockpit to tell the captains the news. â€śThey didnâ€™t know,â€ť he says.Â
When he informed them of this news, he adds, â€śThey didnâ€™t believe it.â€ť
For General Rock and his longtime friend Maj. Gen. Russell Handy â€“ the Air Forceâ€™s top officer in Iraq â€“ the flight is both somewhat surreal and professionally profound.
It marks a poignant final chapter in a conflict that has spanned more than two decades of their careers.Â
As young captains in 1990, Rock and General Handy were in fighter squadrons in Langley, Va., with the mission of bombing this air base during the first Gulf war.
Handy, for his part, recalls the â€śpesky SAM or twoâ€ť â€“ surface-to-air missiles â€“ that Iraq â€śhad in this area literally for years.â€ť
Adds Rock, â€śWe were sure Saddamâ€™s forces were coming.â€ť
In their most recent assignments, Handy and Rock have instead been shepherding the Iraqi Air Force, training them to defend their country from external threats â€“ and to safely land aircraft. (After the last US airmen climbed out of the air-traffic-control tower and on to the awaiting C-17 Saturday night, it will be an Iraqi air-traffic controller who will guide the US plane for its takeoff.)
â€śItâ€™s a 21 year story,â€ť says Handy, â€śall culminating in this operation.â€ťÂ
Before the troops begin boarding the flight, Handy urges them all to take a moment and soak in the momentous occasion â€“ the rare and welcome chance to witness a warâ€™s end.
â€śWhat I encourage you to do is look around,â€ť he says. Think back â€śon the hundreds of thousands who have come before you. Theyâ€™ve been counting on us to bring this thing to an effective close â€“ to a proud close,â€ť he adds.Â
â€śJust reflect a little bit on that.â€ťÂ
Air Force Tech Sgt. Wesley Wooden, who helped instruct Iraqi security forces in this, his fifth deployment to Iraq, does just that.Â
He first deployed to Iraq in 2003, and â€ścamped out for almost a monthâ€ť in the area where this base now stands.Â
In a few days he will be back in Cheyenne, Wyo., reunited with his wife and three children.Â
â€śThis is coming full circle for me,â€ť he says, adding that he believes for this base, at least, â€śWeâ€™re leaving it a lot better than we found it.â€ť
US forces here have left behind office supplies, air-conditioning units, exercise equipment â€“ "anything that would genuinely help the Iraqisâ€™ quality of life,â€ť Sergeant Wooden says.Â
Troops are also leaving behind pool tables, flat-screen televisions, XBoxes, and even signed autographed photos of some bands â€“ think Queensryche â€“ that had come through on previous USO tours.
As they prepare to leave, some airmen grab boxes of chocolate milk out of a full, still-humming cooler, which troops will also leave behind.
Wooden takes a look around the room. â€śAs soon as weâ€™re gone, this place is going to be floodedâ€ť with Iraqis who will want to survey what theyâ€™ve inherited, he says.
At about 9 p.m., word comes to the airmen to grab their duffel bags and head to the plane.
Sergeant Hanning urges them toward the flight, as he shakes hands and slaps the backs of the last of the gear-laden US military security forces and cargo specialists â€“ who load their own bags and keep guard over the last of their comrades walking single file towards the runway â€“ before hopping on the plane themselves.Â
â€śLetâ€™s get this thing loaded up,â€ť Hanning says. â€śYou donâ€™t have to go home, but you canâ€™t stay here.â€ťÂ