Governor Tom Vilsack landed in Iraq Saturday and is meeting with soldiers from Iowa who’re on active duty there. “This has been an amazing couple of days,” Vilsack said during a telephone conference call with Iowa reporters.
Vilsack, a Roman Catholic, traveled with a new rosary blessed by the new pope and will worship on Easter Sunday with soldiers. “This is a holiday, a celebration of hope and I think that’s what you have to focus on, no matter the complexity, the difficulty, the sacrifice,” Vilsack said. “This is about restoring hope in a country that’s been devastated.”
Vilsack said Iraq was laid to waste under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The governor said the country has all it needs to be “extraordinarily rich” — natural resources, ports, fertile soil and, unlike most countries in the region, abundant sources of water. Yet those assets were squandered by Hussein, but things are turning around with a drop in unemployment and a rise in Iraqi incomes, according to Vilsack.
The governor’s overseas trip is paid for by the U.S. Department of Defense and Vilsack is one of four governors on this trip. The others are the Democratic governor of West Virginia along with Indiana’s Republican governor and President Bush’s brother, Jeb, the Republican governor of Florida. A total of 26 governors have now made the trip, part of a Defense Department iniative launched in November to allow state commanders-in-chief to visit guard troops on active duty overseas.
By Saturday evening, Vilsack had visited with an Iowa guard unit in Kuwait preparing to enter Iraq, a medical unit from eastern Iowa caring for the injured inside Iraq and another Iowa unit that’s installing protective devices, like metal plates, on military vehicles. “Even using NASCAR technology to provide for a film that was placed on the windshield so that windshields would not have to be repeatedly replaced when they were cracked with small rocks,” Vilsack said. “This is a very difficult place to travel. The roads are not necessarily in the best of condition.”
Vilsack left Iowa Wednesday; was briefed by the Secretary of State and Defense Department officials in Washington on Thursday; landed in Kuwait on Friday and arrived in Baghdad on Saturday. He’ll visit Afghanistan, too, before returning to Iowa on Wednesday. His departure and details of the trip were kept secret until Saturday morning because of Pentagon protocol. “The soldiers that I talked to are certainly upbeat, certainly proud of what they’re doing,” Vilsack said. “(The Iowans were) anxious to know about the storms back home…and obviously were well-connected with what was going on through the Internet and news that they have access to.”
The temperature in Baghdad on Saturday hit 108 degrees, and the governor said he was told that was “relatively mild.” Vilsack said his visit has given him a fuller appreciation of the “logistical complexity” of the operation in Kuwait and Iraq. For example, each day the U.S. military serves over 700,000 meals and military vehicles travel 158,000 miles daily, burning up two million gallons of gas in just one day. “When you’re over here, you get a much better sense, a closer and detailed understanding of how complex this all is — that it’s not just simply a matter of waving a magic wand and everything’s going to be fine,” Vilsack said. “It’s a lot of hard work. There’s going to be a lot of sacrifice and there’s going to be a lot of pain and the Iraqis have already felt a tremendous amount and so have we.”
Vilsack said a helicopter trip he took inside Iraq’s borders gave him a “real sense of the security challenges” faced by troops in Iraq. “When you travel in the helicopter, you have to be fully protected with body armor, a helmet,” Vilsack said. “You really do get a sense of where there are pockets of significant danger yet in this country.”
Vilsack’s scheduled to return to Iowa on Wednesday and the governor dismisses critics who’ve complained he’s spending more and more time traveling outside of Iowa to boost his national profile to prepare for a run for president. “I wanted the opportunity to personally thank members of our National Guard…who are serving in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan,” Vilsack said. “I had no control over when that occured. This is not a situation where you can plan when to go. It’s pretty much planned for you (by the Pentagon).”