By Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, (November 17, 2011)— Most of about 24,000 U.S. service members remaining in Iraq will be home “well before Christmas,” the last U.S. division commander there said today.
Army Maj. Gen. Bernard S. Champoux, commander of U.S. Division-Center and the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division, briefed Pentagon reporters via video from Iraq on withdrawal operations there.
Champoux deployed with his division headquarters last December in support of Operation New Dawn. He said soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are conducting the last phase of Iraq operations with professionalism.
Since September, Champoux’s forces have been responsible not only for center division’s assigned areas of Anbar and Baghdad provinces, but also nine southern provinces.
“These are historic times … the mission of coming last in this, as in any activity, is distinctively challenging,” the general said.
U.S. troops are dismantling bases and operational structures maintained over many years, while still performing combat missions and transferring tasks to the State Department, which will head U.S. activities in Iraq after American military forces withdraw by Dec. 31, Champoux said.
The complex operation to relocate remaining troops and 374,000 pieces of military equipment – from vehicles to computers – is on a “good glide path” to completion, he said.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops are working with Iraqi army, police and local security forces to counter attacks by extremist groups and Iranian-backed militia, Champoux said.
The “overwhelming majority” of those attacks, he said, have been traced to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which receives funding and training from Iran. Two other Iranian-backed groups still active in Iraq are Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Promised Day Brigade, he added.
The general said trends in violence across the country remain headed in a positive direction under Iraqi security forces.
“I feel very comfortable with where the Iraqi security forces are,” he said, noting his division’s primary task has been to strengthen those forces.
“I think they’re very capable to handle the current threat,” he added, “and I think they’ve demonstrated that in the 11 months that I’ve observed them.”
Iraq’s external defense remains an area where the nation’s forces need to build capability, Champoux said.
“I think that’s a potential role for us in the future, to build that capability,” the general said. “But where we are, at the end of this phase of our commitment here [under] the 2008 security agreement, I feel very comfortable with the effort we’ve put into it and where the Iraqi security forces are.”
Along with deployments to Afghanistan, eight years of military involvement in Iraq have had a dramatic effect on U.S. service members, Champoux noted.
“We’ve either been deployed, or we’ve been back to improve our equipment or to retrain, and again redeploy,” he said.
The military force transitions over time and not all Iraqi troops are still in uniform, the general said, but “a huge majority have continued to serve over those eight-plus years.”
In general, Champoux said, experience in Iraq has honed troops’ ability to function in difficult circumstances, think creatively, and work with all stakeholders.
“It’s made us an incredibly stronger, more resilient, more battle-proven force,” he said. “It’s also had a tremendously positive impact not just on our training and our formations, but also on our equipment.”
As the Iraq mission draws to a close, the general said, his division headquarters will return to Hawaii where they will reset people and equipment, and train and prepare for the next mission.
Champoux noted the military also has learned how to help service members adjust to reintegrating with families and friends when a deployment ends.
“We take the time to make sure that those lessons we’ve learned … are shared with the entire force,” he said. “If someone has been challenged by their experiences here, we make sure there are dedicated behavioral health professionals available to them, there are chaplains available to them, and there are experienced warriors available to them to help them through that.”
He continued, “This is who we are, this is what we do, this is what we are called to do. We do it all in simple obedience to duty.”