FORT HOOD, Texas — Staff Sgt. Elama Palemene held his two young daughters and kissed his wife early Sunday after returning to Fort Hood with about 300 other soldiers, among the last U.S. combat troops returning from Iraq in time for the holidays.
They arrived about 3 a.m. to a cheering, flag-waving crowd of teary wives and bundled-up youngsters on a field at the Texas Army post with temperatures in the high 40s.
"My husband wanted to have (our children) stay behind, but it was a must to have them here," said Annaden Palemene, his wife, who held a large homemade sign that read "Sgt. Palemene, Your Tour Stops Here."
The soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division said they were glad to be home before the holidays — and relieved to be out of Iraq.
"This was my fourth deployment to Iraq ... so it feels great to be home," said Staff Sgt. James Cantrell, who had just hugged his wife, Brenda, and 7-year-old daughter Janelle.
The group was among many returning to Fort Hood in recent weeks — one nearly every day — because of the troop withdrawal, said Staff Sgt. Jefferson VanWey, a 1st Cavalry spokesman.
Several soldiers said they were was happy upon hearing the news that the very last U.S. combat troops rolled out of Iraq across the border into neighboring Kuwait at daybreak Sunday. That convoy's exit marked the end of a bitterly divisive war that raged for nearly nine years and left Iraq shattered, with troubling questions lingering over whether the Arab nation will remain a steadfast U.S. ally.
"I think it's good we're out of Iraq. I think they're ready — the government and the military," said Spc. Keenan McCoy, holding his 13-month-old daughter Kyrie close to him and hugging his wife Rachel.
He declined further comment, and Fort Hood officials then said reporters present were banned from asking questions about how soldiers feel about leaving Iraq or the war.
Palemene said he hopes the country remembers that U.S. troops are still fighting elsewhere in the world.
"It feels good to be home safe and sound, but we should remember that there are still soldiers in Afghanistan," he said.
The war in Iraq cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury. The quiet weekend withdrawal was a stark contrast to the start of the war, which began with a pre-dawn airstrike in Baghdad on March 20, 2003, before U.S. and allied ground forces then stormed from Kuwait across the deserts of southern Iraq toward that capital.
In late 2003 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division, then based at Fort Hood, captured Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and he was executed in 2006. The division and its headquarters moved to Fort Carson, Colo., in 2009.
Troops also have been returning to other military installations across the country.