Reporting from Joint Security Station Constitution, Iraq -- The soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Heavy Brigade Combat Team are, as their designation implies, trained and equipped to fight. They have a fleet of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. They carry their M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders at all times, ready to shoot if they are attacked.
But since they deployed to Iraq eight months ago, they haven’t fired their guns. Their tanks and Bradleys sit unused in a lot at the sprawling Camp Victory beside Baghdad airport. And most important of all, no one has been killed.
“It’s wonderful,” said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hunter of Boston, Ga., a tank crew commander on his third tour of duty who survived 20 roadside blasts when he was first deployed, in 2004-05.
For Hunter and the other soldiers of the division’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, many of whom are on their third or fourth tours, the formal end of combat operations in Iraq on Tuesday is just that: a formality. The war as they knew it is already over.
That’s not to say U.S. troops are out of danger. Eighteen U.S. soldiers have been killed in attacks this year across Iraq. But that’s a fraction of the 4,408 who have died since 2003.
These days Hunter spends his time training the Iraqi army, as part of a 70-member Stability Transition Team based at Joint Security Station Constitution in the still volatile neighborhood of Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad.
“I don’t wish I was out there fighting. It means we can take everyone home safely,” he said in his air-conditioned trailer on the base, one of the 94 in Iraq that will house the 50,000 U.S. troops staying after combat operations end.
For this combat unit, many of whose members stormed into Baghdad seven years ago, a war that began with shock and awe is ending with “advise and assist.”
That’s the new label being given to the six brigades that will be left in Iraq, even if all of them are made up of combat soldiers.
“It sounds like it’s semantics, but it’s not,” 2nd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Gregory Sierra said of the name change. “What we do is completely different. I am an infantryman. We are a combat brigade. But we’re assigned as an advise and assist brigade.”
Troops offer Iraqi soldiers advice, and assist them, but only if asked. “Gone are the days where we had to grab three [Iraqi] soldiers and say, ‘We’re going outside the wire.’ That does not happen,” Sierra said.
In a telling sign of how different the war has become, many of the soldiers at the camp didn’t know about a wave of bombings across the country Wednesday that killed at least 50 people, even though several exploded in the west Baghdad area they cover.
In days past, “we would have had an active role,” said Staff Sgt. Frankie Parra, 28, of Queens, N.Y., whose quick reaction force wasn’t aware of the bombings. “Now they only call us if they need us.”
When soldiers do go out, it’s mostly to provide what amounts to a heavily armored escort service for officers and experts visiting with Iraqis.
Roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, are still a threat to troops who ride out on the streets. Rocket fire is also a continuing menace, and two of the three soldiers killed this month died on their bases in the usually peaceful south, which has seen a rise in rocket attacks by Shiite Muslim militias in recent weeks.
There will probably be more casualties before U.S. forces withdraw entirely at the end of 2011, Iraq commander Gen. Ray T. Odierno has warned. And Iraq’s war isn’t over. The country is still unstable, there is no proper government, bombs explode every day, and assassinations are on the rise.
U.S. troops do have the right to fight to defend themselves. It is not inconceivable that American forces will be called back into combat “if … you had a complete failure of the [Iraqi] security forces,” Odierno told CNN this month. “But we don’t see that happening.”
With just 50,000 troops on the ground, there’s also a lot less the Americans can do. In 2007, there were 166,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including eight combat brigades in Baghdad.
Now there is one, responsible for a vast area comprising not only Baghdad, still one of the most violent areas of the country, but also an arc of territory to the south and west.
“I have 70 guys covering an area that had a whole combat brigade,” said Lt. Col. Rob Rooker, who was among the soldiers who stormed Baghdad in 2003 and now commands the Stability Transition Team at Constitution, pointing out on a map an area stretching from the Tigris River to Abu Ghraib in the west.
“There’s just things we don’t do anymore. Things fall off the plate.”
For soldiers who have already performed several tours of duty, the new pace is a big relief.
“It’s real good that we can go outside the wire and not have to deal with all the stuff that we used to,” said Sgt. Michael Davis, 30, of Baton Rouge, La., who is on his third tour of duty. “But sometimes if you get a new guy just out of high school, they get caught up in the war stories people tell and then you have to explain to them that they need to be grateful they’re not going through that.”
Spc. Travis Carroll, 29, of Crawfordsville, Ind., is on his second deployment to Iraq, but mostly performed guard duty at a large base the last time. “Knock on wood, I’ve yet to fire my weapon in combat,” he said.
“There’s a small part of me that does feel disappointed,” he said. “I joined to be a soldier and I trained to fight.
“But the big part of me says it means I’m going to go home 100% OK. I’d much rather see my family again than fire my weapon.”