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Dec. 22, 2011: Kuwait—As the last US troops to leave Iraq waited at an undisclosed air base here last week for their charted flight back to the United States, many grappled with their emotions.

"It's really surreal to me because I was one of the first people in the initial push [of Operation Iraqi Freedom] and I never thought I would be here at the very end as well," said CMSgt. Mike Hanning, who was the Air Force's senior enlisted advisor in Iraq since January.

Airmen like Hanning were honored to have played a small role in history and happy to be leaving a sovereign Iraq behind, but they also knew there was more work that they could have done had the US military remained in country for longer.

"Six months ago, I didn't think we would be here," said Hanning, meaning out of Iraq. "I really thought there would be some type of political agreement that would be reached."

Such an agreement, which would have allowed US military forces to stay longer, ultimately faltered on the Iraqis' refusal to grant US troops immunity from prosecution.

Prior to the phased US pullout, which concluded on Dec. 18, the Air Force had a steady presence in Iraq for the last 20 years, a fact often overlooked by those outside the service.

That presence began with Operation Desert Storm and the effort to push Saddam Hussein and his followers out of Kuwait, and continued through the subsequent enforcement of no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.  It then evolved into eight-plus years of combat and stability activities during OIF and Operation New Dawn.

Those 20 years left an imprint on countless Air Force careers. For example, the top USAF leaders in Iraq during New Dawn also were involved in the first days of Desert Storm some two decades ago.

Maj. Gen. Russell Handy, the senior Air Force official in Iraq since August 2010, and Maj. Gen. Anthony Rock, who oversaw the Air Force's advisory and training mission there since January, were both F-15 pilots assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Va., during Desert Storm. The then-captains flew sorties during Desert Storm as part of the initial air invasion to break down Saddam Hussein's military. Two decades later, they each worked tirelessly during New Dawn to rebuild Iraq's military capability.

On Dec. 17, Handy and Rock, long-time friends, stood on the ramp of a C-17 reminiscing about their role in Desert Storm. The C-17 had just landed at Camp Adder in southern Iraq on an historic mission to pick up the remaining airmen and soldiers for the last US airlift flight out of Iraq. The mood was jubilant and surreal. It was a moment those involved said they'd never forget.

"This was my first target on my first day" in Desert Storm, said Rock of Camp Adder, as he gazed out at the flight line for the last time. "You can't make this stuff up."

Minutes later he was strolling into Adder's passenger terminal, with a pocket full of coins and a huge smile on his face. "Someone call for a taxi?" he joked, as he shook the hands of the airmen and soldiers waiting to board the last flight out.

One of the most fitting tributes to the American effort in Iraq came as that C-17 climbed into the night sky. An Iraqi air traffic controller "called on the radio and asked the pilots to pass a special farewell to their American friends," said Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, commander of Air Force Central Command, during an inactivation ceremony in Kuwait hours later.

That story, said Goldfein, is "why all who are gathered here today take great pride in what we leave behind."

But, despite the Air Force's herculean efforts, the Iraqi air force remains in its infancy and there are serious questions as to Iraq's ability to defend its own airspace.

Staff Lt. Gen. Anwar Hamad Amin, Iraqi air force commander, said his government is aware of the capability gaps and is working to address the issues. "Building the Iraqi air force is not easy. It's hard," said Anwar during his last press conference with Handy days before the US end-of-mission ceremony on Dec. 15 in Baghdad. "[The] Iraqi air force needs more money as well as training," added Anwar, who acknowledged that it will be years before his air force reaches its full capability.

The Iraqi security forces, which operate just one truck and one small Humvee, also are facing significant manpower shortages now that US troops have withdrawn. Members of the 447th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron spent their last weeks at Sather training the fledgling Iraqi security forces on the fundamentals of base security operations.

"They trained very well. The problem they have is capability. They don't have enough materials or enough manpower," said MSgt. George Sikaffy, the 477th ESFS flight chief, who spoke to reporters before heading out on a 12-hour night patrol. He continued, "They used to work eight days on, 10 days off. Now, they are switching to 24-hour operations. It's very different."

Like the Americans, the Iraqis were unsure what to expect when the US military departed. "There will be a lot of empty places when the Americans leave and we will have to find a way to fulfill those spots," said an Iraqi air force private in the security forces who asked not to be identified for security reasons. "We would rather they stay."

Although the Iraqis now have significantly more opportunities than before, violence was still a concern as US forces pulled out of Iraq and the future remained uncertain, said Gen. Lloyd Austin, US Forces-Iraq commander, during the end-of-mission ceremony, held at the former Sather Air Base.

"To our comrades in the Iraqi security forces, we have trained, fought, and bled together. We have created hope. We have persevered, and we have witnessed remarkable progress together," said Austin. "No doubt this is a challenging time for Iraq and its neighbors. Iraq's leaders must make the right choices and base [their] decisions on what is best for the Iraqi people. [They] must demonstrate resolve and apply pressure to those intent on imposing harm to the Iraqi people, because violence and prosperity cannot co-exist."

But, it didn't take long for violence to erupt throughout the Iraqi capital. Just days after the last American troops arrived back in the United States. a coordinated series of more than 10 explosions killed at least 57 people and wounded nearly 200 more, according to press reports.

The surge in violence raised the question whether the war was really worth it. Almost 4,500 Americans were killed and more than 100,000 Iraqis died during the nearly nine years of the conflict.

"To be sure, the cost was high—the blood and treasures of the United States and also of the Iraqi people. But, those lives have not been lost in vain," said Panetta during the end-of-mission ceremony. "They gave birth to an independent, free, and sovereign Iraq. And, because of the sacrifices made, these years of war have now yielded to a new era of opportunity."

Handy said it's "almost impossible for the American people to comprehend the level of sacrifice" that both the Americans and the Iraqis made during this war. Each airmen, soldier, sailor, and marine would have to decide for themselves whether the sacrifice was worth it, he said.

"Sacrifice is a deeply, deeply personal thing," said Handy.