Sgt. Josie Peters of the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division sits in her apartment near Fort Bliss. Peters came back from her second trip to Iraq as a medic in March. She now plans to settle into a house with her husband.
Sgt. Josie Peters of the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division sits in her apartment near Fort Bliss. Peters came back from her second trip to Iraq as a medic in March. She now plans to settle into a house with her husband. John Burnett/NPR
President Obama visits Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday to mark the formal end of combat operations in Iraq, after seven years and 165 days of fighting. The president will meet with some of the 25,000 troops of the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division — the famed "Old Ironsides" — about half of whom wear combat patches from Iraq.
The troops at Fort Bliss also have something to say: When asked what they would like to share with Obama, their answers ranged from gratitude to be home, to eagerness to be back in the action.
'Thank You,' Mr. President
If he had a few words with the commander in chief, what would Maj. Elliott Rogers say?
"I guess the first thing that pops in my mind is to say, 'Thank you.' "
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Rogers is grateful that he will not lose any more soldiers — 51 from Fort Bliss have died in Iraq.
The 37-year-old rear detachment commander from Raleigh, N.C., is also thankful — after repeated trips to Iraq — that he is at home in El Paso now that his 13-year-old daughter, Erin, has started high school.
"The fact that when she has an issue or concern in high school, I don't have to address those via Skype or, you know, freakin' webcam. I can actually put my arm around her and actually talk to her in person," Rogers says. "That means a lot."
He spent his last deployment in Iraq training his counterparts in the Iraqi army's 12th Division to take over the defense of their country, with the U.S. Army in a supporting role.
He supports the Aug. 31 deadline to end the combat mission. Though there are still lots of hostile combatants, Rogers says, it's time to turn it over to the Iraqis.
Maj. Elliott Rogers (left) and Staff Sgt. Charles Hawkins talk in front of the 1st Brigade logo at Fort Bliss.
Maj. Elliott Rogers (left) and Staff Sgt. Charles Hawkins talk in front of the 1st Brigade logo at Fort Bliss. John Burnett/NPR
"If we wanted to, I guess we could stay there forever and continue to fight foreign fighters. But is the Iraqi army ready? I think yes. Willing? I guess [that's] yet to be determined."
Eager To Redeploy
Charles Hawkins, a 28-year-old staff sergeant from Vienna, Ohio, has no family and no commitments stateside. He doesn't particularly look forward to life on the sprawling desert army post in West Texas.
If he has the opportunity to give the president a message?
"Just: When will you let me go to Afghanistan next? I want to go there next, so when is my next deployment?"
Hawkins has had five deployments to Iraq; the most recent was cut short, and he returned to Fort Bliss three weeks ago as the U.S. troop commitment was downsized. He won't miss it.
"[I've seen] pretty much all I want to see of Iraq. Time to go see a new landscape," he says.
In his last deployment, Hawkins and his squad in Alpha Company 136 helped train Iraqi soldiers to run highway checkpoints.
- More than 1 million U.S. military personnel have served in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
- 50,000 American (non-combat) service men and women remain in Iraq.
- The White House says it will stick to its agreement to have all U.S. forces out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
And while 60 percent of the respondents in a recent USA Today poll said the Iraq war was not worth it and the U.S. is not any safer, soldiers at Fort Bliss disagree.
Hawkins says he believes the United States has won the Iraq war.
"We went over there for weapons of mass destruction and really didn't really find any, but we won by helping out a country that was in need. They needed our help, and we went over and helped them and did our best. And got them to where they ... are stable now and can help themselves," Hawkins says.
Settling In At Home
With no plans for the 1st Armored Division to redeploy to Iraq, the returning soldiers can begin to make their own plans.
Sgt. Josie Peters plans to buy a house with her husband — no more apartments. She has been to Iraq twice as a medic. She came back in March.
Iraq veterans have had enough of sandstorms, camel spiders and body armor in 120-degree heat.
"Southern Iraq was terrible. The wind blew, and it was so hot it felt like somebody was standing and blowing like a hot blow dryer in your face," Peters says.
What would she tell the commander in chief today if he stops to shake her hand?
"His wife is always very fashionable. I like her style."