U.S. soldiers from the 5-7 Air Defense Artillery task force take part in a ceremony marking the end of their mission on Sunday, at Tel Yona army base. (Photo: Reuters/Nir Elias)A four month-long mission came to a close on Sunday for over 700 U.S. soldiers, marines and sailors who were stationed in Israel, with both the commanders of the Israeli and American troops praising the level of cooperation and technical capabilities of their joint effort.

The U.S. troops were sent to man seven Patriot-2 missile batteries in the event of an attack on Israel by Saddam Hussein.

“We came here to assist an already existing air defense system,” said Maj. Gen. Stanley Green, the commander of the U.S. Joint Task Force, at a ceremony at Tel Yona Air Force Base in Rishon Lezion marking the end of the U.S. mission. “Our mission here was to deter, and if necessary defend – deterrence worked.”

Late last December, the U.S. troops arrived to take part in a joint ballistic missile defense exercise called “Juniper Cobra.”

In a test of the compatibility of the two nations’ military hardware, US Patriot-2 batteries were plugged into a two-tiered defense network that included the longer-range Arrow-2 missiles and the naval-based Aegis radar.

After the completion of the exercise, US forces stayed on during the Iraq crisis. They manned Patriot batteries in Haifa, Safed, and the greater Tel Aviv area.

Both Green and the Israeli commander, Brig. Gen. Yair Drori, emphasized the advantages of having the two forces work together.

“While we have our own operational air defense system … it is always good to have a joint system with other countries,” said Drori.

Green said the U.S. forces had benefited from working with the “two tier” air defense system, referring to the combination of the Patriot and Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system, one of the few systems capable of intercepting and destroying a missile at high altitude.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz officially lowered Israel’s state of alert last week, telling citizens they no longer needed to carry gas masks or keep sealed rooms in their homes in case of an Iraqi biological or chemical missile attack.

The decision was made after coalition troops gained control of areas in western Iraq from which Saddam had fired missiles at Israel in 1991. Only conventional warheads were used and the missiles caused few casualties.

At the end of the ceremony in which American and Israeli flags were hoisted, American and Israeli soldiers took turns posing for snapshots. According to the Associated Press, one female American soldier put her arm around an Israeli counterpart and said in a Midwestern drawl, “You know, Yehuda, I’m going to miss you.”

Officers and soldiers talked of the different culture they encountered in Israel.

Pointing to several Israeli soldiers in a tent where he was interviewed, the 69th Brigade’s commander, Col. Roger Mathews, noted Israeli military men who get together behave like members of a family.

Some 50 soldiers were invited to Israeli homes for the Passover eve dinners and the brigade’s deputy commander, Jim Gomes, said he then realized the origins of some Easter traditions.

Other soldiers talked of the warm welcome they encountered from adults and children alike.

“Israel reminds me a lot of America. There is so much American influence,” Chief Warrant Officer Greg Riggins of Kingwood, Texas, said.

“Some of us would have liked to have been in Iraq or maybe to have shot down a missile,” said a soldier who only identified himself as Sgt. Cutler from southern California.

Others said they were simply looking forward to getting home.
“I really miss my mom,” said Pfc. Anthony Johnson, from Texarkana, Arkansas. “But that’s the army.”

(Based on an Associatated Press report)