FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE - Col. Malcom Frost knew there would be questions. The official end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq was approaching, but his soldiers, operating in two of Iraq's most dangerous provinces, would still be here.
He sat down and penned a letter to the soldiers' families. "01 Sept. 2010 does not mean a light switched on or off in Iraq," the brigade commander wrote. "The weight of responsibility upon our shoulders is great, because we must follow through to the very finish."
For the soldiers in Frost's brigade, Wednesday will mark an arbitrary milestone. There are fewer troops here, just under 50,000 now, consistent with an Obama administration pledge, and the troops leave base less often. But Americans still die in Iraq, and the fight for stability is far from over.
Still a battleground
Iraq remains a battleground, American soldiers say, even if they are no longer kicking down Iraqi doors.
Instead of carrying out combat missions, Frost's unit has been designated an "advise and assist" brigade, like five other American brigades left behind in Iraq. Its task is to train Iraqi security forces, gather intelligence, assist Iraq's fledgling air force, and, ultimately, close up shop and go home. The lower-profile approach under Operation New Dawn is the latest step in a transition that began more than a year ago when American soldiers were pulled back from Iraq's urban centers and for the most part retreated into their bases.
But less than two months into their deployment, two of Frost's men have already been killed. Their mission still involves risks as they escort commanders and trainers to appointments with Iraqi officials.
Around them, assassinations and violence seem to be on the rise, although at drastically lower levels than during the darkest days of Iraq's civil war, between 2005 and 2007.
Last week, as news reports in the United States hailed the departure from Iraq carrying the last designated combat brigade, family members eagerly called their loved ones here, asking whether they too were headed home. No, the soldiers told wives, mothers, fathers and grandmothers. They have more than 300 days left in Iraq.
The day after other troops celebrated their exit from Iraq, soldiers at FOB Warhorse mourned the death of Sgt. Jamal Rhett, a young medic. A grenade was lobbed into his vehicle Aug. 15 as he and his platoon left federal police headquarters in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. They were escorting a police training team.
Despite their new title, soldiers know the battle is not over, not for them and not for Iraq. Rhett and 1st Lt. Michael Runyan, both from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, were added to a memorial of the fallen that spans at least five concrete blast walls at the base.
Getting better, slowly
In many ways, Iraq is better, the soldiers said. There are more Iraqi forces, they are better equipped, and the violence is down compared with the days of the surge, when U.S. casualties spiked and Iraqis were being killed in far greater numbers. But their interactions with the community are limited, and they see very little of what happens outside their bases.
On most of their missions, members of Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, escort officials to their destination and then wait in their Stryker armored vehicle for the official. Waiting during one such mission in Muqdadiyah, Staff Sgt. Justin Austin, 23, said, "Muqdadiyah is one of the worst spots in Iraq right now. The war may be over, but combat is definitely not. People still die here."
Minutes later, a powerful blast rocked the vehicle, and Austin threw on his helmet.
"Start the truck," Austin told the driver. They closed the hatch, and the soldiers rolled out to see what had happened.
"I don't know what's going on right now," said Spc. Joshua Johnson, 25, a gunner. "It's a car bomb, I think."
At the time they didn't know that Sunni insurgent groups were setting off bombs in at least a dozen towns and cities across the country in what seemed to be a message that they were still here as U.S. troop numbers dwindled.
The soldiers stayed in their vehicles and waited for the bomb squad. A half-hour later, another explosion ripped through an Iraqi army truck in front of them. A man was carried away.
After the bomb squad had finally come and gone, they left. Johnson handed Lapierre a slab of wood.
"Knock on it for luck," he said.