Governor Huntsman Visits Iraq,

Praises Utah Guard

 

Written by Maj. Hank McIntire

Published August 14, 2006

 

Download Printer-Friendly Version

       

 

Gov. Jon Huntsman at the Baghdad Airport with the aircraft that brought him to Iraq.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Jon Huntsman at the Baghdad Airport

 with the aircraft that brought him to Iraq.

SALT LAKE CITY Utah Governor Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., returned from a trip to Iraq in March of this year. Huntsman, who is also the commander in chief of the Utah National Guard, shares his perspective on his three-day trip and what it means to command the 6,500 Airmen and Soldiers of the Utah National Guard, many of whom have served in the Middle East.

How did your trip to Iraq come about?

About two months prior to the trip, Sen. John McCain invited me to travel to Iraq with him to meet with newly elected officials there. He also invited two other U.S. senators and two other governors to go along.

What did you hope to accomplish in Iraq?

Our purpose was to remind the government of Iraq—as only elected officials can—what some of their obligations are, to include leading a stable interim government reflective of the December 2005 elections.

Although certified elections had taken place, groups within the country don’t naturally see eye to eye in terms of a common vision or destiny. Given their history of being part of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, British Rule in the 1920s and 30s and control by the Baathist party until 2003, that makes it a difficult situation to manage.

We planned to visit the president, prime minister and cabinet members, who were all functioning on an interim basis.

Our overall message to them was to be, ‘Get your act together, organize an interim government that is representative of the will of the people and start managing your affairs.’

Gov. Huntsman with a colleague and New Hampshire Guardsmen on the aircraft en route to Baghdad.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Huntsman with a colleague and New Hampshire

Guardsmen on the aircraft en route to Baghdad.

I also wanted to meet as many troops as possible and thank them for their dedication and for putting life and limb in harm’s way. Our National Guards have made an enormous contribution unlike any conflict in recent history. As governors, we’re mindful of that every day. And any opportunity to thank Soldiers, Airmen, and families, we will do that.

How did you prepare for the trip, and how did you feel about the potential dangers you would face in a combat zone?

Prior to departure we received briefings on the geopolitical situation and received a war update. The best preparation for the trip, however, was serving as a diplomat overseas, which I had done before, in things like preparing and training for evacuation, and the potential onslaught of hostile forces.

My thoughts throughout the trip were ‘If our Utah citizens are willing to put their lives on the line, then why shouldn’t the governor?’ I felt that this was the least I could do, to put myself in a similar situation. Sure, my family and my kids worried about it, but I told them, ‘It’s no different from thousands of other family members throughout the state.’

What were your travel schedule and accommodations like? Where did you go?

We were on the ground in the Middle East for less than 72 hours. On the way to Iraq we stayed in hotels overnight in Amman, Jordan, and in Kuwait City. We flew into Baghdad on a C-130 with Soldiers from the New Hampshire National Guard. The pilots executed a corkscrew-style approach to Baghdad Airport while we put on helmets and flak jackets.

The official party after arriving at Baghdad Airport March 25.

Photo by Gov. Jon Huntsman

The official party after arriving at Baghdad Airport March 25.

Once we landed we flew by Blackhawk helicopter to the U.S. embassy. It was like a scene out of Blackhawk Down; we were just barely skimming the tops of the houses and neighborhoods to the embassy compound. It was a reminder to me that we were in a war zone and we were up against some hostile elements.

While on the ground we traveled in armored convoys. We left the Green Zone for the Red Zone for lunch and a meeting with the former Iraqi president and some of his cabinet members. We were told that [leaving the Green Zone] was a first for a CODEL (congressional delegation) in some time.

Overnight we stayed at one of Saddam’s palaces in the pool house. They had cargo containers converted into sleeping quarters. The rooms had no windows, a single cot to sleep on and you shared a bathroom with someone else.

We also went to Fallujah and Hillah. I gained a great respect in Iraq for the capabilities of the Blackhawk.

Gov. Huntsman, second from left, and his colleagues meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Huntsman, second from left, and his

colleagues meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad.

What was it like meeting and hearing about Utahns in Iraq?

Their reaction was one of gratitude. And I wanted to return that by saying, ‘Come on, we’re grateful for what you do.’ I think there was a little bit of ‘shock and awe’ on their part, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s now-famous phrase.

I met with lots of Utahns working in the embassy in Baghdad or at Central Command headquarters. I also had lunch with forward-deployed Marines on my birthday in Fallujah.

Constantly I was told about what a great job our Utah units were doing in Iraq. Everywhere I went I heard about the Triple Deuce. I heard it from the Marine commanding generals in Fallujah and the military planners in Baghdad. They would all make it a point when they knew I was from Utah to single out the contributions of our troops.

They were always referencing the Triple Deuce as the best fighting force they had ever seen. It was a constant refrain and very gratifying to hear about the contribution of some highly respected units. It gave me great pride.

Gov. Huntsman meets with Iraqi leaders and media during his March visit to Iraq.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Huntsman meets with Iraqi leaders

and  media during his March visit to Iraq.

Now that you’ve experienced Iraq firsthand, what is your assessment of the media coverage of the war there?

It does not surprise me that much of the reporting coming out of the war zone is about body counts, incidents of violence, and more of the negative aspects of war and conflict.

When you have live coverage on several cable stations, there is a voracious news appetite that must be satisfied. The war is dissected. Every incident of violence is going to make the news.

Do I wish it were different? Yes. I wish there was more [coverage] of the work going on in Hillah where they are rebuilding the infrastructure of the community from schools to hospitals. I wish there was more of that, and there is if you want to look for it.

How has your experience in Iraq changed you?

I’ve come away with a heightened respect for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States. I can’t thank them enough. I can’t watch them raise and lower the flag without getting a lump in my throat and thinking about what some of our military professionals are doing around the world.

Gov. Huntsman receives a briefing on the current situation in Iraq March 25.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Huntsman receives a briefing on

 the current situation in Iraq March 25.

[Our work in Iraq] is a remarkable expression of what a superpower is capable of doing. There isn’t another country in the world that can project force like we can. At the same time, there isn’t a country that can project humanitarian support like we can. I came back with a much deeper appreciation of the power of the United States.

I have the distinct impression that putting the pieces together in Iraq is not going to be easy. It’s going to be a long-term proposition. You’re dealing with age-old animosities.

Regional stability in the Middle East will require a multifaceted approach: some diplomatic, some military, some left up to regional capacity-building. You have to visit the area and sit in Baghdad and meet the leaders to really appreciate the challenge that lies ahead.

It’s a reminder when you’re there [in Iraq] that we are citizens of a remarkable country. You don’t get that impression just sitting here reading it in the newspaper or seeing it on television.

It was a reminder that we’re in a hot war; we’re committing real lives to that hot war, and there are real family members who are left behind, remembering every day that their loved one is gone.

Since you have come back, what strides have they made in Iraq to respond to your group’s message?

What they have today which they didn’t have then is a government in place. With that in place, the next question is ‘Can this government govern?’

Gov. Huntsman, left, his colleagues and security personnel prepare to move to the next location on their itinerary.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Huntsman, left, his colleagues and security personnel

prepare to move to the next location on their itinerary.

Having a prime minister in place (Maliki) is a very good sign. They also now have a minister of defense, foreign affairs, and interior. All three are critically important for the long-term stability of the country. Now the test will be to see how quickly they can bring order to what has been disorder.

Working with the democratically elected assembly, working with religious and secular factions, [showing that] making basic decisions of governing a society can be made without civil war; those will be signs of success.

What are your thoughts on possible future Utah troop deployments to Iraq?

I am concerned every time we commit a single human being to a war zone. Our troops are trained and prepared, they salute the flag and they salute the commanders who make these decisions. I support that fully.

If additional support is needed, we’ll play a role in helping. I would hope we would put as much emphasis as possible on training local forces. Eventually this conflict will have to be turned over to such forces. We’re doing some of the same thing in Afghanistan, training local troops.

Now having faced some of what our troops face in combat, what is your message to Airmen, Soldiers and families of the Utah National Guard?

Gov. Huntsman, top left, and the Congressional delegation prepare to make a public announcement in Baghdad.

Photo courtesy of Gov. Jon Huntsman

Gov. Huntsman, top left, and the Congressional delegation

prepare to make a public announcement in Baghdad.

Over the last two years, our troops have been put to the test like never before in the history of the Utah National Guard. And we have measured up in a most extraordinary way. In every single situation, our Guard members have measured up remarkably well, and every Utah citizen can be justifiably proud.

I’m very proud of the work they are doing as their commander in chief, so proud that I want to talk about it wherever I go.

It’s hard work and particularly tough on families left behind, but we can take great comfort in the idea that every citizen of this state supports our men and women in uniform.

I’m proud to be commander in chief of some of best men and women I’ve ever met. For me, the highlight of this job is to get out and shake hands, rub shoulders with our men and women in uniform. I want to thank each of them for their service because it has not gone unnoticed.