Tuesday, July 06, 2004

But for the Army's 1st Armored Division, which has seen 15 months of continuous duty in Iraq, longer than any other military unit, this Independence Day took on special meaning.

These 20,000 soldiers were getting ready for a ride home that was three months overdue.

The morning began with a "casing of the colors" ceremony overseen by division commander Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey. The lowering of his task force's flags marked the official end of its mission to provide security in and around Baghdad — and recently, to lead the battle against Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Karbala and Najaf.

The tank division, which was formed a year before the U.S. entry into World War II and known as "Old Ironsides," was packing up to return to its base in Germany in April. But the outbreak of parallel uprisings in Fallujah and Najaf created an emergency for the already stretched forces here, and the Pentagon delayed the exit.

At the departure ceremony, held in the shadow of a vast Iraqi hangar, Dempsey recalled the 136 troops from his division who died in Iraq — about 16 percent of the U.S. death toll of 858 — and the more than 1,000 who suffered serious wounds.

"We have learned a lot about the price of freedom," he said. "We learned that people experiencing freedom for the first time may not understand how fragile it can be and how much sacrifice may be required to earn it and preserve it."

Quoting Thomas Jefferson, he reminded the troops that the "tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and of tyrants."

"We did our duty, nothing more, and certainly nothing less," he concluded. "Well done, Iron soldiers."

One of the tank officers going home, Lt. Col. Randy Lane, originally from a suburb of Cincinnati, was watching his troops make final checks of Abrams tanks loaded onto the back of flatbed trucks for the 24-hour drive to Kuwait.

"I feel pretty good about it," Lane said. He said he is looking forward to joining his wife and children in Germany. "It's Independence Day for the country and independence day for us — that's a double blessing in one day."

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