Before the Aug. 31 deadline, about half the brigade's 4,000 soldiers flew out like most of the others leaving Iraq, but its leadership volunteered to have the remainder depart overland. That decision allowed the unit to keep 360 Strykers in the country for an extra three weeks.
U.S. commanders say it was the brigade's idea, not an order from on high. The intent was to keep additional firepower handy through the "period of angst" that followed Iraq's inconclusive March 7 election, said brigade chief, Col. John Norris.
It took months of preparation to move the troops and armor across more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) of desert highway through potentially hostile territory.
The Strykers left the Baghdad area in separate convoys over a four-day period, traveling at night because the U.S.-Iraq security pact—and security worries—limit troop movements by day.
Along the way, phalanxes of American military Humvees sat at overpasses, soldiers patrolled the highways for roadside bombs, and Apache attack helicopters circled overhead as the Strykers refueled alongside the highway.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gus McKinney, a brigade intelligence officer, acknowledged that moving the convoys overland put soldiers at risk, but said the danger was less than in past.
The biggest threat was roadside bombs planted by Shiite extremist groups who have a strong foothold in the south, McKinney said.
But except for camels straying into the road, and breakdowns that required some vehicles to be towed, there were no incidents.
The worst of the ride was conditions inside the Strykers—sitting for hours in a cramped space—and the temperatures outside that reached 50 Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).
The driver's compartment is called the "hellhole" because it sits over the engine and becomes almost unbearably hot. The vehicle commander and gunner can sit up in hatches to see the outside world. At the tail end are hatches for two gunners. Eight passengers—an infantry squad in combat conditions—can squeeze in the back.
Riding as a passenger felt a bit like being in a World War II-era submarine—a tight fit and no windows. The air conditioning was switched off to save fuel on the long ride south to Kuwait. Men dozed or listened to music on earphones.
When the convoy finally reached the sandy border, two soldiers, armed and helmeted, jumped off their vehicle and raced each other into Kuwait.
Once out of Iraq, there was still work to be done. Vehicles had to be stripped of ammunition and spare tires, and eventually washed and packed for shipment home.
Insurgents Battle On
Meanwhile, to the north, insurgents kept up a relentless campaign against the country's institutions and security forces, killing five Iraqi government employees in roadside bombings and other attacks Wednesday. Coming a day after a suicide bomber killed 61 army recruits in central Baghdad, the latest violence highlighted the shaky reality left by the departing U.S. combat force and five months of stalemate over forming Iraq's next government.
For Dill, who reached Kuwait with an earlier convoy, the withdrawal engendered feelings of relief. His mission—to get his squad safely out of Iraq—was accomplished.
Standing alongside a hulking Stryker, his shirt stained with sweat, he acknowledged the men who weren't there to experience the day with him. "I know that to my brothers in arms who fought and died, this day would probably mean a lot, to finally see us getting out of here," he said.