JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - For most of the members of the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division - the "Raiders" - who stood on Watkins Field Thursday, it wasn't the first uncasing ceremony. They were veterans of previous deployments

However for all the Soldiers on the field that day, it would probably be their last uncasing ceremony for a deployment to Iraq.

The last combat brigade to leave Iraq prior to President Obama's Aug. 31 deadline and the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the return of the Raider Brigade to Joint Base Lewis-McChord marks the return home of the last of the installation's three Stryker brigades.

The uncasing of the brigade's colors served as the symbolic end of the unit's deployment, a deployment where change was the norm and the flexibility of the Stryker brigade was tested.

"The story of the Raider Brigade in Iraq is a special one from beginning to end," said Maj. Gen. John D. Johnson, commanding general of I Corps, during his speech at the ceremony.

More than 2,800 of the brigade's 4,000 Soldiers had been on at least one previous deployment, with roughly 2,000 members of the brigade having served with the unit during the Raiders' previous deployment to Iraq from April 2007 to July 2008.

The previous deployment, during the period in Iraq's recent history known as "The Surge," had been hard-fought - the brigade lost 38 men - but left the Soldiers of 4th Brigade experienced and battle-tested.

After being accelerated in their deployment cycle by nine months, the 4th Brigade, under the leadership of Col. John Norris and Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Huggins, returned to Iraq in early September 2009, assuming responsibility for western Baghdad including the Abu Ghraib Qada, north to the city of Taji and, later expanding to Tarmiyah.

"Some of the most complex and troublesome areas of Iraq and directly on two of the main avenues that extremists use to build their horrible vehicle-borne IEDs and transport them to attack the government and population of Baghdad," Johnson said.

"These were trouble spots that were famous even in Saddam's time, and had continued to be trouble for U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government," he said. "And this is exactly where the story gets interesting."

Knowing that the March 7 Iraqi National Elections would be key in determining the future of the Iraqi people, the brigade set to work - partnering with Iraqi Army, Federal Police, local police, Iraqi governmental officials and local civic leaders to ensure a safe and secure democratic process.

The brigade established numerous training exercises and programs aimed at bolstering the Iraqi Security Forces' capabilities including basic to advanced rifle marksmanship training, traffic control point procedures, equipment maintenance classes and sensitive site exploitation training.

To bring their Iraqi partners to the forefront with the latest communication, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance methods and technology, 4th Brigade helped construct several joint operations centers, or JOCs, where U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers could work side-by-side to share the latest information and intelligence from the ground.

Standing in the Forward Operating Base Constitution JOC on Election Day, Norris and his counterpart from the 6th Iraqi Army were able to monitor the situation on the ground at Baghdad polling sites throughout the day.

"The JOC was instrumental in ensuring that Iraqi and U.S. forces were synchronized, updated on each others' activities and allowed us to quickly and effectively maneuver ISR assets at the request of our partners," Norris said reflecting on the overall impact of the election.

"The Iraqi people voted for change, they voted against sectarianism, and they voted for responsible governance," he said.

Post-election, the Raiders' mission continued to focus on partnership, with a special emphasis on improving Iraq's civil capacity, agribusinesses and economic infrastructure.

Joining forces with two embedded provincial reconstruction teams, USAID, the Army Corps of Engineers, Iraqi ministries and numerous local government and tribal leaders, the brigade completed 83 projects costing a total of $14.5 million.

"The Raiders created civil capacity where none previously existed," Norris said. "This is their legacy."

The 4th Brigade also transferred five joint security stations to the government of Iraq, downsized two additional stations, and fixed, cleaned and turned in two brigades worth of equipment for redistribution to other units in Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.S.

But even while the sun was setting on the last days of the Raiders' deployment, they faced one final mission that placed them on the national stage.

While the Iraqi democratic process was still ongoing, a new government being seated and the Aug. 31 deadline of 50,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq fast approaching, 4th Brigade was ordered to conduct their redeployment via a tactical road march in mid-August from their bases in west Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border.

Driving out of Iraq in their Strykers, rather than packing everything up and flying, kept the Raiders on the ground and mission-capable longer, allowing the U.S. commander in Iraq additional combat flexibility closer to the deadline.

In what came to be known as "The Last Patrol" 2,000 4th Brigade Soldiers on 320 Strykers drove 360 miles to Kuwait in the blazing August heat to help meet the deadline.

"It secured the brigade's legacy," Norris said. "More importantly, it brought an honorable and symbolic closure to Operation Iraqi Freedom for the Soldiers and the nation."

Yet the brigade commander was quick to remind the audience that the accomplishment of the brigade did not come without sacrifice. He said 36 Soldiers were wounded during the deployment, including three serious injuries.

Among those was Spc. Andrew Toppin, a member of the military police platoon assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Brigade. Toppin lost his right leg, suffered severe damage to his left leg and received burns to his face and arm, when the vehicle he was driving was struck by an explosively formed projectile. Despite his injuries, Toppin managed to bring the vehicle safely to a stop.

"Incredible - sure," Norris said. "But more incredible was that only a few short months after evacuation and well before our return, with the support of his young Army wife, he would participate in a triathlon on a prosthetic leg, crutches and a steel harness on his left leg. Talk about a source of inspiration!"

Norris explained that despite being accelerated by 10 months, despite having their operational environment changed and then later expanded, and despite deploying with vacancies in some staff and leadership positions, the diligence and commitment of the Soldiers in the brigade helped achieve a level of success that others might have seen as impossible.

Johnson echoed a similar statement, telling the Raiders that their legacy would live on, well into the future.

"Years from now when young Soldiers and fellow citizens are talking about Operation Iraqi Freedom, and they come to the part about how it all came together in the end, you'll be able to say 'I was there - I was a Raider in 4-2.'" Johnson said. "'And we made it happen, we made a difference.' And that is all you will have to say."

Sgt. Bryce S. Dubee is assigned to 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. This story appeared in the Joint base Lewis-McChord weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.