Highway 1 in Iraq is the road home for thousands of American troops as the Dec. 31 deadline for the U.S. withdrawal approaches.
And for many soldiers driving out on this highway, Contingency Operating Station Kalsu, a U.S. base about 60 miles south of Baghdad, is the last stop they will make in Iraq before rolling into Kuwait.
As the highway snakes its way through the dusty agricultural lands of Babil province, the base's imposing wall of concrete emerges among the scattered palm trees. And several times a day, southbound convoys of hulking armored trucks pull off the road and into the base.
"To put it in the simple vernacular, it's a truck stop," says Col. Scott Efflant, the commander of the base.
He says that convoys driving from points in the north funnel down to the base on their way out of Iraq.
"This is where you get gas, do maintenance, maybe get a fresh load of chow and water, and continue on your way to Kuwait," Efflant says.
Moments Of Relief, Joy
More than 30,000 troops have stopped as the U.S. has been shuttering its bases in the country's north. And it's the job of Capt. Samuel Campbell from Lake Travis, Texas, to make sure that everyone gets in and out quickly and safely.
Standing in the staging area where incoming convoys gather, Campbell walks through the process.
"They will clear the weapons when they come in, we'll have escort take them to refuel," he says. From there, they go through a maintenance check, load up on water, ice and MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat.
After that, they line up their trucks in the expansion yard and relax for a bit while they wait for the order to roll out. Campbell says that this is when the soldiers briefly let their guard down and revel in the fact they are going home.
"You can just look over and you can see it," he says. "You have guys jumping, kind of laughing, smoking, joking."
Campbell says he's proud to be part of this unit that helps send soldiers home. He did a tour in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 as part of a security force, so he knows what the outbound troops have been going through. He says he respects them and wants to get them home to their families.
At the same time, Campbell says it's starting to hit him that this is the end — the U.S. troops leaving now aren't coming back.
"I get goose bumps talking about it," he says. "It's kind of surreal."
Relationships Left Behind
A key part of getting the troops home is making sure the route is clear and safe.
First Lt. David Coleman is an infantry platoon leader in Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment based out of Fort Hood, Texas. On a recent night, under the light of a half moon, he leads his platoon on a patrol of the small town of Tunis.
Their job is to protect the base from insurgents, and one way they do that is to patrol the area and show the U.S. presence to deter and would-be attackers.
Other troops stationed at the base are responsible for patrolling about 160 miles of Highway 1 — or Route Tampa, as the U.S military calls it — to make sure the convoys are safe from roadside bombs.
Coleman leads his patrol by the Iraqi police station in Tunis to check with their local counterparts. He greets the officer in charge who tells him that most of the commanders are off for the night celebrating the Shia Muslim holiday of Ashura.
After a quick chat, the U.S. troops load back into their armored trucks and continue driving through the town.
While many troops have served multiple tours in Iraq, Coleman is on his first deployment, and he is eager to get back to his family. He says he has made important relationships with Iraqi security forces, and he'll miss that, but he'll miss something else more.
"It's probably going to be just the amount of time I get to spend with my soldiers on a daily basis," he says. He says the officer-soldier relationship is very different in the field than it is back in garrison. He says that out in the field, he gets to live with the soldiers and spend more time interacting with them.
"That's the most rewarding part about being a platoon leader," Coleman says.
Soldiers at the base are slowly coming to grips with the significance of this moment. Many say they are still too busy to think about the U.S. military ending its nearly nine-year presence in Iraq. For some, the war has spanned nearly half their lives. Efflant, the base's commanding officer, takes a longer view.
"I remember in 1989, I was stationed in Germany and seeing the news that the [Berlin] Wall had come down," he says, "and the threat from the Iron Curtain that was such a huge part of our life then, all of a sudden it's gone."
Efflant says that change was difficult to process. For him, the end of the war in Iraq is an equally profound and defining moment.
"I'm not sure I can process this yet," he says. "It's going to take time."