AT THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER - Outside, it was pitch dark. The six American soldiers couldn't see much of the desert landscape outside the small windows of their armored vehicle. They were hushed and exhausted from an all-night drive - part of the last convoy of U.S. troops to leave Iraq during the final moment of a nearly nine-year war.
As dawn broke Sunday, a small cluster of Iraqi soldiers along the highway waved goodbye to the departing American troops.
"My heart goes out to the Iraqis," said Warrant Officer John Jewell. "The innocent always pay the bill."
When they finally crossed the sand berm that separates Iraq from Kuwait, the mood inside Jewell's vehicle was subdued.
His comrade, Sgt. Ashley Vorhees, mustered a bit more excitement. "I'm out of Iraq," she said. "It's all smooth sailing from here."
The final withdrawal was the starkest of contrasts to the war's start, before dawn on March 20, 2003. An air strike in southern Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein was believed to be hiding, was the opening shot of the "shock and awe" bombardment.
The last convoy of heavily armored personnel carriers, known as MRAPs, left the staging base at Camp Adder in southern Iraq in Sunday's early hours. They slipped out in darkness and strict secrecy to prevent any final attacks. The 500 soldiers didn't even tell their Iraqi comrades on the base they were leaving.
No attack materialized, but the fear spoke volumes about the country they were leaving: damaged, dangerous, home to many people who still see America not as the ally that helped them end Hussein's dictatorship, but as an enemy.
But the last soldiers out looked ahead, mostly, and not back. They spoke eagerly of family reunions and longing for Western "civilization" and especially the meals that await them back home.
Vorhees, 29, planned a Mexican dinner at Rosa's in Killeen, Texas. Her favorite is crispy chicken tacos. Another joy of home, she said: You don't have to take your weapon when you go to the bathroom.
In the last days at Camp Adder, the remaining few hundred troops tied up the loose ends of a war, or at least those that could be tied up.
The soldiers at the base spoke often of "lasts" - the last guard duty, the last meal in Iraq, the last patrol briefing. Spec. Brittany Hampton laid claim to one of the most memorable "lasts." She rode in the last vehicle of the last convoy of U.S. troops leaving Iraq.
Hampton was thinking of her father, also a soldier, who has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I can't wait to . . . call my dad and tell him about this," she said. "He's not going to believe it. He's going to be so proud of me."
In the last two years, violence has dropped dramatically. But the sectarian wounds remain. Even as U.S. troops were leaving, the main Sunni-backed political bloc said Sunday it was suspending its participation in parliament to protest the monopoly on government posts by Shiite allies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"We are glad to see the last U.S. soldier leaving the country today," said Said Hassan, 25, the owner of a money exchange shop in Baghdad. "It is an important day in Iraq's history, but the most important thing now is the future of Iraq."