By Mr Lorin Smith (IMCOM)December 9, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Captain Gregory McCrum has quite a Christmas surprise for his two children: he is home seven months early.
He and 170 other Soldiers from 62nd Medical Brigade and 17th Fires Brigade stepped off a chartered plane at McChord Field Tuesday night, representing the last large troop movement of Joint Base Lewis-McChord-based units to leave Iraq.
They are home as part of the nation's final drawdown of forces in Iraq after a military presence of nearly nine years under two operations: Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.
More than 100 remaining JBLM Soldiers will leave the Arabian Gulf country as they are required by Dec. 31.
The servicemembers walked off the plane, turned in their weapons and headed to redeployment ceremonies to reunite with their Families after serving about six months in Iraq.
President Barack Obama has ordered the withdrawal of all servicemembers from Iraq and their return before the holidays.
Only a small contingent of Marines will stay to protect the American Embassy; others will work in specialized support roles with the Iraqi military.
Senior officials on the ground will continue to assess mission requirements and deployment timelines for the remaining forces in Iraq.
"The drawdown of forces is a positive milestone for the U.S. and JBLM mission in Iraq," said I Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield.
"We at I Corps welcome the returning servicemembers home to their Families, and are thankful for the accomplishments and sacrifices made by our servicemembers and Families throughout the eight years we have been in Iraq."
The U.S. and Iraqi governments were unable to negotiate the terms of a Status of Forces Agreement for troops to remain beyond the end of 2011, precipitating the quickened removal of U.S. forces from the country.
Vice President Joe Biden recently made an unannounced stop in Iraq to meet with Iraqi leaders and thank servicemembers.
"We are withdrawing the remaining U.S. forces from Iraq, and we are ending that war responsibly and giving the Iraqi people the chance for a better future that they deserve, and also maintaining an important strategic relationship with Iraq," Biden said.
To U.S. forces he said, "Job well done."
The two countries begin a new partnership that reflects Iraq's needs and includes a robust security relationship.
Biden and Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki signed a declaration to bring peace to the region while sharing information and improving infrastructure.
The U.S. has completed nearly 1,800 projects in Iraq's health sector valued at $800 million, including the renovation of 133 primary health centers, according to the Pentagon.
Joint Base Lewis-McChord has played a pivotal role in securing the country for the Iraqi people.
I Corps headquarters deployed in 2004 to Mosul, Iraq, where it provided the command and control element of all coalition and Iraqi forces in northern Iraq.
Brigade combat teams from JBLM joined others to play major roles in capturing and killing al-Qaeda leaders and extremist splinter group terrorists in 2005 and 2006, provide security to the region and encourage a regeneration of a war-torn society.
The past five years has seen nearly every major subordinate command on JBLM deploy to Iraq in some capacity to provide full-spectrum operations and training to Iraqi security forces.
More than 100,000 Lewis and McChord servicemembers have deployed to the Middle East in support of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Dangerfield said.
As the last U.S. military hospital unit to serve in Iraq that provided Level 3 medical treatment, the highest level of medical, surgical and trauma care available within the combat zone for Soldiers throughout the country, 47th Combat Support Hospital's McCrum said that he is very comfortable handing over the medical facilities to the Iraqis.
"My facility was the last medical facility operating and is pending turnover in the next two weeks," McCrum said.
While the 47th worked to turn over hospitals and shut down operations, the 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment was engaged in heavy fighting until the day before its Soldiers boarded the flight home.
Captain Mike Neilen said the battalion was disappointed at its orders to Iraq six months ago because the consensus was that the war there was "over."
The "Steel Rain" Soldiers learned, Neilen said, that their area of operations at the northern city of Kirkuk is still a dangerous area.
"Just because the president announced that we were leaving doesn't mean the enemy stops fighting," Neilen said.
The unit's field artillery mission was changed for the deployment to infantry-style dismounted patrols and searches for high-value targets, and the mission, he said, was accomplished, evidenced by almost five months of peace in Kirkuk.
"As we started to withdraw, some violence started to escalate again, but we were on patrol and able to quell that violence. The mission was a huge success," Neilen said.
The Soldiers of both units were mindful of the significance of being among the last returning units from Iraq.
The realization hit 62nd Med. Bde.'s 520th Area Medical Support Company Soldiers as they worked with the State Department to inventory equipment, Pfc. Meaghan Dansie said.
"I told my Soldiers that their accomplishments are a historic piece of the United States Army," McCrum said.
Lorin T. Smith: email@example.com