by Senator Larry Craig and Representatives Mike Simpson and C.L. “Butch” Otter
As you may have heard, the three of us, accompanied by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, recently returned from a trip to visit the soldiers of the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade in Iraq.
Last winter, as the men and women of the 116th trained at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fort Polk, Louisiana for deployment to Iraq, members of the Idaho Congressional Delegation traveled down south at various times to visit with them. These hardworking Idahoans deserved to hear our appreciation of their service, and our commitment to them and their needs. Their commanders assured us the 116th would be well prepared to take up their mission in Iraq.
These words were reinforced with each of us, as we heard from individual troops going through training. Many said they were proud to have the opportunity to serve, and they were anxious to get their tour of duty underway. But they were also homesick for hometowns and loved ones. Understanding how reassuring a familiar face can be in an environment of uncertainty and change, we made a promise to visit our Idaho soldiers when they went to Iraq.
At the end of April, we got the opportunity to go. We all agreed it was the most educational, encouraging and worthwhile experience any of us have had in recent memory. We were the first members of Congress to visit with the new Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, since the new Iraqi government was formed.
We expressed to him the importance of quickly, but responsibly, putting a stable security force and functioning government in place to meet the needs of Iraqis and deal the terrorists yet another defeat. He assured us progress would continue on that front, and that the United States’ assistance in building a free Iraq will not soon be forgotten.
In Kirkuk, where the 116th is stationed, we saw Idahoans carrying out a variety of missions to provide stability and train Iraqis to build the foundations of a free society. They have earned the praises of their superiors – and most important – the local Iraqi people.
In the course of carrying out these duties, the 116th’s commander in Kirkuk, Brigadier General Alan Gayheart, explained an interesting development in relations between the 116th soldiers and Iraqi citizens there. He said the Iraqis have come to develop a greater respect and better working relationship with the 116th troops than with many of the full-time active duty forces. This is because Iraqis have learned that the men and women of the ING are civilians first, soldiers second. In their lives back home, our men and women on patrol are doctors, plumbers, electricians, police officers, construction workers, engineers and business owners.
Iraqis feel this makes ING troops more able to identify with the situation of ordinary citizens, and provide specific skills to solve everyday problems. Our troops understand what it means to worry about the safety of a family, crime on the streets, quality schools for the kids, or finding steady work. Gayheart believes this makes Iraqis more willing to accept the assistance and advice the ING provides.
Their successes have been inspiring, and there will be more ahead. There are more schools to renovate, more sewer systems to fix, more police to train. There will be challenges and setbacks too. There might be casualties. We are winning in Iraq, but we have not won. There is still much to do that, if left undone, could threaten the overall success of the mission there.
Some have asked us if the trip was worth it. You be the judge. While in Kirkuk, we ran across a young trooper from the 116th who we had seen in training back at Fort Polk. His eyes got big when he saw us, and he said, “When you guys said you’d come visit us in Iraq, I thought it was just politicians saying it because it was the right thing to say.” He couldn’t believe we were there. He came right over, thanked and hugged us, and got a little choked up. In truth, we all did.
Later, we flew out of Iraq on a C-130 cargo plane, carrying three flag-draped coffins. We also visited wounded Idahoans at Landstuhl, Germany. That soldier who hugged us, the flight out of Baghdad, and the hospital in Germany truly brought home the gravity of the mission in Iraq and the sacrifices being made by our fine young men and women in uniform.
We learned a great deal and were exposed to much we couldn’t have comprehend without seeing it on the ground. And the soldiers seemed to appreciate our support. Was it worth it? You bet. Every living, breathing minute.