In The Iraqi Desert, A Way Station On The Road Home

Dec 11, 2011
Originally published on December 13, 2011 10:09 am

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 any 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.

Defining Moment

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."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For many of the departing troops leaving Iraq, a U.S. base about 60 miles south of Baghdad is the last stop they will make in the country before the final drive into Kuwait. As of today, that base has been turned over to Iraqi security forces.

But NPR's Sean Carberry spent a day with U.S. soldiers there as they prepare to roll out.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Highway One, or Route Tampa as the U.S. military calls it, is the road home for thousands of U.S. troops. As the highway snakes its way through the dusty agricultural lands of Babel Province, an 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

COLONEL SCOTT EFFLANT: To put in the simple vernacular, it's a truck stop,

CARBERRY: Colonel Scott Efflant is the commander of Contingency Operating Station, or COS Kalsu.

EFFLANT: And so those forces that are coming down, this is where you get gas, do maintenance, maybe get a fresh load of chow and water, and then continue on your way to Kuwait.

CARBERRY: More than 30,000 troops have stopped through Kalsu as the U.S. has been shuttering its bases in the north of the country. And, it's the job of Captain Samuel Campbell from Lake Travis, Texas, to make sure that everyone gets in and out quickly and safely.

CAPTAIN SAMUEL CAMPBELL: Got to clear the weapons when they come in. We'll have an escort take them to the fuel point, check their maintenance, make sure water, ice, MREs are good. And pretty much once they give them the go, they'll SP, Sir.

CARBERRY: SP means starting point: time to roll out, which the soldiers do with enthusiasm.

CAMPBELL: You can just look over and you can see it. You got guys jumping kind of laughing, smoking, joking. Once they come in, they park, they can let their guard down a little bit, take a deep breath, know they are going home. Get back on the A-game and move on.

CARBERRY: Captain Campbell says he's proud to be part of this unit helping send soldiers home. He says it's starting to hit him that this is the end; that the U.S. troops leaving now, aren't coming back.

CAMPBELL: I say I get goose bumps talking about it. It's kind of surreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES AND FOOTSTEPS)

CARBERRY: A key part of getting them home is making sure the route is clear and safe.

FIRST LIEUTENANT DAVID COLEMAN: My name is First Lieutenant David Coleman. And today, we're just doing a little dismount walking through the town.

CARBERRY: Lieutenant Coleman leads his platoon through the town of Tunis under the light of a half moon. Their job is to protect the base from insurgents. Other troops on the base are responsible for patrolling 260 kilometers of Route Tampa, to make sure the convoys are safe. Lieutenant Coleman leads his patrol by the Iraqi police station to check with their local counterparts.

COLEMAN: Salam.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Salam.

COLEMAN: How's it going tonight?

CARBERRY: Lieutenant Coleman is one of a minority of soldiers on their first deployment in Iraq and he's 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.

COLEMAN: It's probably going to be, I mean the amount of time that I get to spend with my soldiers on kind of a daily basis. The relationship that kind of officer has to his soldiers in the field is a lot different than it is back in garrison.

CARBERRY: Soldiers young and old at COS Kalsu say they're slowly coming to grips with the magnitude of this moment. Many say they're still too busy to think about the fact that they're closing the door on a nearly nine-year long chapter of history. For some, the war in Iraq has spanned nearly half their lives.

Colonel Efflant takes a longer view.

EFFLANT: I remember in 1989, I was stationed in Germany and seeing the news that the Wall had come down. And the threat from the Iron Curtain that was such a huge part of our life then, all of a sudden it was like, it's gone, and you didn't know how to process it. I'm not sure I can process this yet. I think it's going to take time.

CARBERRY: Sean Carberry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.