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Governor Huntsman Shares His Perspective

on Utah Troops in the Middle East

 

Written by Shad West

Published February 5, 2007

 

 

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Governor Huntsman visiting troops in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr.

Governor Huntsman visiting troops in Afghanistan.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., returned from a trip to Afghanistan in December.  The state’s chief executive, who is commander in chief of the Utah National Guard, is often referred to as “hands-on” commander by his Airmen and Soldiers.

 

2006 was a busy year for Huntsman. Between March and December he traveled to Iraq twice, visited Afghanistan, Kuwait and went to the U.S.-Mexico border with a specific purpose: To meet deployed Utah Service members and thank them in person for their service to our State and Nation.

 

Just two weeks after his State of the State address hosted by the Utah Air National Guard Jan. 16, Huntsman sat down with the Utah Minuteman to share his perspective on the Utah National Guard and the progress made in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

 

What did you hope to accomplish with your trip to Afghanistan?

 

To thank our troops. Many are there for the second and third time. I just wanted more than anything else to express the gratitude of the State and all of its citizens for all the work that is being done and has been accomplished by members of the Utah National Guard.

 

Now that you have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan, what is your assessment of the media coverage of both countries?

 

There isn’t enough coverage of Afghanistan. There is much in the way of improvements being made in Afghanistan. It largely stems from a government that is largely functional. With a president in Hamid Karzai and a cabinet that is actually doing things as opposed to Iraq where you have a central breakdown in governance with Maliki.  So there is a difference in the two of them in the sense that Afghanistan has a functioning government and is making progress in terms of nation building and capacity building, and its commitment to democratic institutions. It isn’t a country beset by sectarian conflict. You have the Taliban which is largely the result of the uncooperativeness of Pakistan.  And they are there, but they won’t be forever.

 

You attended the memorial service for 2nd Lt. Scott Lundell while visiting Afghanistan. Can you describe some of the emotions you felt?

2LT Scott Lundell's ceremony in Afghanistan

Photo courtesy of Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr.

2LT Scott Lundell's ceremony in Afghanistan

 

It was an extraordinary experience. It was the deepest emotionally I felt so far as governor.  You can’t help but have deep respect and admiration for our Armed Forces when you walk into a room that is standing at attention paying tribute to one of their fallen colleagues who happens to be a Utahan. It was an extraordinary experience sitting on that stage in front of literally hundreds of troops who were there to pay their respects to Lt. Lundell and then to have the opportunity to stand up and say something expressing our State’s gratitude and thanks for all that they were doing—particularly to a family who sacrificed all: Scott’s family, his wife and his loved ones. Our troops are going out and doing what I think is largely misunderstood by a lot of people in this country and that’s fighting the War on Terror. There is not any place in the world that represents the front lines more so than Afghanistan in the War on Terror.

 

What did you see in the faces of his fellow Service members while you were sitting there on stage?

 

I saw the look of commitment. I saw the look of fatigue. I saw the look of a deep respect for a fallen comrade and a commitment to carry on despite what sometimes are difficult odds arrayed against them.

 

President Karzai attended the memorial as well. What was his reaction to the service?

 

His reaction was very warm. I explained to him what had happened a couple of days before I left for Afghanistan. I explained I would be carrying some personal items with me, and what did he want in terms of expression from the people of Afghanistan. He said he wanted to write a personal note to Jeanine Lundell. And he did along with a little gift. I hand-carried Scott’s personal items as well as that note from President Karzai and gave them to Jeanine. I thought it spoke volumes as to the kind of person Karzai is.  He takes personally every Soldier that is lost, because he knows exactly the kind of mission and the purpose that is served there. He understands what it means to have the United States there as a stabilizing force in his country. And they would be in difficult straits if we weren’t there. So he was very moved by the sacrifice and certainly let it be known by the expressions in his letter.

 

You have been a very “hands-on” commander in chief.  You’ve visited troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and along the border in Arizona. You were also at Camp Williams when the Guard housed Katrina and Rita evacuees. Are you planning on any other trips to Utah National Guard Units serving overseas?

 

Rifle detail who provided the 21 gun salute for 2LT Scott Lundell's memorial in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr.

Rifle detail who provided the 21 gun salute for 2LT Scott Lundell's memorial in Afghanistan.

You know I wasn’t necessarily planning the other two (Iraq and Afghanistan) trips. The opportunities came around and I jumped at those opportunities because I want to— whenever possible—express a continuing sense of appreciation and gratitude of our State to those who are putting life before anything else. It’s the ultimate sense of courage that is on display by our citizens, and I want to make sure they understand the deep gratitude we have as a people. And in return I want people in our state to understand the sacrifices made by those people in the field. I talk about it wherever I go. If there is another opportunity to go over at some point maybe later in the year, I’ll always look favorably at doing that just to maintain this dialogue between our State and members of our Guard. But I hope by the end of the year we have political settlement that is worked out. We have not only a surge in terms of numbers that are helping to provide security for the peace, but a political solution that is being worked out as well that will ultimately put an end to the sectarian violence that we are seeing. The first thing that needs to happen clearly is additional security and that’s being addressed and the next part of that is a political solution of some kind. So, I hope by the next opportunity that I have which would be by the end of the year; we would be well into some sort of political solution. And if by having governors over there we can somehow help in driving home the importance of a political solution--as in we can’t commit in an open-ended fashion our members of the National Guard, I’d be happy to be a part of that.    

 

You mentioned the recent surge of troops to Iraq under President Bush’s plan. We already had to tell some Utah National Guard families that their loved ones would be staying in the region a little bit longer.  Do you have a message for those Soldiers and their families?

 

Yes. Thank you for your continuing sacrifice and sense of duty. Now it is incumbent upon the powers that be in our country to move as quickly as we can once Baghdad is secured and more Iraqi forces have been trained.  To move it more into the hands of the Iraqis. But they need trained forces in order to do that. We saw over the weekend  what trained forces are able to do. (Coalition and Iraqi security forces killed terrorists and discovered multiple weapons caches throughout Iraq over the weekend of Feb. 3-4, 2007.) Again, a real vote of thanks to our troops and their families that support them for the extraordinary sacrifice that is being made. And my deep focus that we could couple this last surge, this last enhancement of military personnel, with a political solution that will somehow bring this to a sensible end.