The United States hasn’t seen such a massive and rapid return of soldiers from the battlefield since the end of World War II. Army bases throughout the country, almost empty during the height of the Iraq war, are now the scenes of sometimes-daily ceremonies for this new generation of war veterans.
The drawdown of troops from Afghanistan will make for a gradual withdrawal until the 2014 deadline. The withdrawal from Iraq is a much faster one. Tours of duty are in some cases coming to an abrupt end. For the United States, the Iraq war will officially come to a close at the end of the year.
It’s a surge to come home, and a new reality that is beginning to dawn on the US military. Soldiers now back at their bases are looking at months and maybe years of training, without a precise goal to work towards. And those leaving the military are staring bad veteran unemployment figures in the face.
But the first instinct of the redeployed soldier is to hold his or her family members in a long embrace. Such is the case at Fort Hood in Texas, on a twice-weekly basis. Since the end of October, the biggest army base in the country has been swelling its ranks.
I just got back from Fort Hood. One by one, around 350 soldiers stepped off the plane and back on to American soil. For many, this had been their second or third deployment to Iraq. They got a firm handshake from their superiors and gave us the chance to put faces on a war that is told so often with mere statistics. Almost 4,500 US service members have died during “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, as the military here likes to call the war in Iraq.
I saw those same soldiers diligently waiting in rank on a sports field outside their headquarters. A few metres in front of them stood their family members, placards in hand. They too were waiting for the signal to rush towards their loved ones, clad in army uniform. The resulting rush to be the first to that long-awaited embrace was a moment to behold. The soldier standing next to me had also recently returned from Iraq. He didn’t mind my calling the spectacle a surge of sorts.
It’s the so-called surge of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, under the leadership of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush respectively, that is largely credited with turning things around in both theatres of war.
None of the soldiers we met that day would talk about a US victory in Iraq, though. The term “mission accomplished”, used so mistakenly by George W. Bush in 2003, was happily used to describe the task they had been given. It was the task to train their Iraqi counterparts and leave behind a country with a semblance of stability.
At the height of the Iraq war, 170,000 US soldiers were based there. The United States has defined itself as a country at war since 9/11. That’s a definition that might have to change soon. Iraq now, Afghanistan in three years’ time if all goes well. Where do US soldiers go next? For now, they’ve got their sights set on home.