AN NAJAF, Iraq -- The last Marine battalion in southern Iraq is finally returning home.
For the Marines of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, the news that they will return to 29 Palms, Calif. at the end of September was almost too good to be true.
"I think it might actually happen this time," said Lance Cpl. Ryan Burton, a battalion radio operator from Orleans, Ind.
The battalion was prepared to leave at the beginning of September when a car bomb exploded in the shrine area of the city, killing about 100 worshippers. As a precaution, the Marine battalion was ordered in place for at least two more weeks to ensure stability in the city.
However, the news of the imminent departure came from a reliable source. Brigadier Gen. John F. Kelly, assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division Sept. 21 delivered the news personally.
"You will be the last battalion back in the United States," said Kelly, to a packed chow hall. "We saved the best for last."
It became official three days later when Lt. Col. Christopher Woodbridge, battalion commander transferred authority to Spanish Army Brig. Gen. Alfredo Cardona, commander of the Plus Ultra Spanish Brigade during a brief ceremony Sept. 23.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Woodbridge said after almost two months of working with Battalion Cuscatlan of El Salvador and Battalion Xatruch of Honduras, which comprise the bulk of the Latin brigade, they will take up the reins.
"I anticipate that they will enjoy the same level of success in Najaf as we have," he said.
The Spanish brigade has big shoes to fill. After capturing an important oil field, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines helped secure Baghdad and was later responsible for the safety and security of one of Islam's holiest cities.
The Marines left 29 Palms at the end of January and have been away from loved ones for more than eight months.
At times, members of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines battled Hussein's Republican Guard troops, sand storms, the searing Iraqi sun, slow mail, sleep depravation and no days off, according the Battalion's senior noncommissioned officer, Sgt. Maj. Henry E. Bergon, a 24-year veteran of the Corps.
"I had my doubts about the video-game playing Marines of this generation," said. Bergon, a native of Woonsocket, R.I. "But these guys changed my mind. Their morale never wavered and the professionalism that they displayed proved to me that they may be the greatest generation ever."
He said they have proved their worth time and again. On March 21, the "First Team" help seized the Az Zubayr oil facility, which produces about 14 percent of the world's oil and will prove critical in supporting the newly freed Iraqi people.
The leathernecks of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines went as far north as Baghdad participating in the longest and fastest ground assault in the history of the Marine Corps. Despite intense firefights both in the desert and in the tight constraints of urban settings, the battalion lost no one to hostile fire.
After helping to pacify Baghdad, the First Team headed back south and was given the mission to secure the city of An Najaf, which is one of Islam?s holiest cities. The Ali Mosque, which houses the tomb of the founder of Shiite faith, is there, along with one of the world?s largest cemeteries. Shiites from around the world come to An Najaf to bury their relatives and to make pilgrimages to this city.
"Baghdad may be the head of Iraq," said Capt Kohtaro Terahiara, the battalion's intelligence officer and resident of the San Francisco Bay area. "But Najaf is the heart of Iraq."
As the lead elements of the battalion arrived in Najaf to replace soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) of Fort Campbell, Ky., the Marines were told that they drew the toughest assignment -- creating a safe and stable environment in what was described as a radical Shiite Muslim city.
Along with the Marines, a detachment of Naval construction engineers, a company of Army military police and a team of Army Reserve civil affairs specialists dove into the job of making Najaf a safe and productive city again.
They found that Saddam Hussein's regime had cut off state funding to Najaf. The technical college had been closed for more than a decade. Most of the more than 500 hundred primary and secondary schools in the Najaf province had been repaired since the end of the first Gulf War.
"When we talk about trying to bring Najaf back to pre-war levels (of services)," said Maj. Rick Hall, the Battalion?s executive officer and father of eight. "We are talking about pre-Desert Storm."
The First Team jumped in to help Najaf. Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (Air Detachment) based at Port Hueneme, Calif., repaired 13 schools, and a police station, in addition to building fortifications for the Marines.
Reservists from the Army's 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Green Bay, Wis., and Marines from the 3rd Civil Affairs Group, introduced the citizens of Najaf to the principles of democracy and worked with police and social services to serve the community. They also identified critical projects needed to keep the city running and managed millions of dollars in grants and projects, including repairs to power and water treatment facilities, hospitals and schools.
Actively patrolling a province of more that 1.2 million people, the Marines took responsibility for the safety of the people of Najaf.
Following up on leads, the "First Team" regularly went on raids that disrupted arms smuggling rings and Ba?ath Party hideouts.
Now those tasks will fall to their Latin American counterparts. Working in tandem with the follow-on forces, Marines conducted joint patrols daily.
"They are really eager to get out there," said Pfc. Courtney T. Dingwall, an infantryman from with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines Company B. "They?re pretty locked on."
Lieutenant Col. Santiago Sabino Monterroza, commander of Battalion Cuscatlan said his 300 troops are fully prepared to continue the work began by the American forces.
"The more training you do, the more confident you are," Monterroza said. "Right now, we are confident of taking over for the Marines."
As the Latin Forces have prepared to take charge, the Marines have been busy cleaning and packing in order to get back to their home base of 29 Palms.
"I won't believe it until I am there." said Lance Cpl. Sok Khoan, a native of Cambodia and company clerk for Headquarters and Support Company. "My wife asked me if I was happy to be home soon, I told her that I was nervous. I guess it's like the war. You don't know what to expect."