Gov. Bill Haslam left Washington, D.C., Monday morning to spend a week in the sand.
Not a beach trip, but one with the serious mission of visiting, encouraging and learning what Tennessee and other U.S. men and women are experiencing in their deployment in the Middle East.
The governor spoke to reporters on a conference call Tuesday about 2 p.m. from an undisclosed base in Kuwait.
“Monday morning, I left Washington along with three other governors at the Department of Defense invitation to come visit camps in the Middle East,” Haslam said. “We have visited, over the last day or so, five or six bases in Iraq and Kuwait. I hadn’t been over here before, so it has already been an incredibly eye-opening experience.”
The governor and the governors from Kentucky, Nevada and Utah will continue their tour this week and return home on this weekend. He said he and the other governors are getting a glimpse of what military personnel live with day-in and day-out.
“I haven’t slept since we left Washington on Monday, but it has been a great experience and incredibly eye-opening. One of main things you see quickly is what it is like to work in this environment,” he said. “In Baghdad, it is 130 degrees. It is rough on equipment and personnel. It is hard to appreciate that until you see it."
The governor said one of the best descriptions he had heard on the living and working conditions is that it is "like turning a hand-held hair dryer on high and blowing it in your face all day. Seeing the conditions gives you a greater appreciation of the work happening over here.”
The governor said his main thought after being in country for more than 24 hours was “a huge appreciation” for the work the men and women are doing. “It may sound like something a politician would say, but it is true. The work they are doing is difficult and dangerous still - not as dangerous as it was, but still dangerous,” he said. “I’ve been around so many Tennessee military men and women, and I’m very, very impressed.”
Haslam said that as the head of the Tennessee National Guard, the trip will help him to see what military personnel from the Volunteer State are doing.
“We have a lot of soldiers over here, and (this trip) gives me an understanding what they’re doing,” he said. “Hopefully, it is also encouraging for them to have folks visiting them. It helps me to understand the scope of what we have done over here and what we’re still doing.”
Haslam said he has been very impressed with how folks are holding up. “Most have been over here since last winter or spring, from January or March, April or May and will be here until the end of the year,” he said. “That is long time to be away from home in a dangerous situation. That’s a long time to work in these kinds of conditions.”
The governor said he has asked each person he speaks with what they miss most, and they usually always have the same answer – they miss home.
“I asked all of them, ‘Tell me what you miss the most,’ and every one of them really, really misses being home. I also asked, ‘Are you glad you’re doing it?’ And almost all of them say ‘yes.’”
The other governors on the trip are Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, Gov. Gary Herbert from Utah and Gov. Brian Sandoval from Nevada.
"I think the reason I was asked is because of the high number of Tennessee men and women here in both the Guard and the regular Army. Of course they can't just get us to Tennessee troops, but they’ve done a great job of pinpointing where a lot of the Tennessee troops are located,” he said. “(The defense department) hasn’t done these trips in a while, and I was honored to get asked.”
The group is traveling by either Blackhawk helicopters or a C-130 plane, the governor said.
When asked what the men and women are asking him about home, the governor said he gets a wide range of questions, from what kind of season the Titans are going to have to what he sees happening with the economy. The economy is on the minds of a lot of the men and women serving overseas.
“A lot of folks who are here, especially in the guard, left a job or a company, and they are wondered what is happening with the economy. Some left jobs or were between jobs,” he said. “I’ve heard more concerns of, ‘Tell me what is happening with the economy,’ and other things. And mostly, you just miss home and the everyday things of life.”
Haslam said the visit increased his respect for what the service personnel face everyday, even beyond the danger of their jobs.
“Folks really are confined to their bases here. It is a pretty repetitive life. It would be as if you worked 12 hours a day for a whole year without a break, and if you went somewhere or ate somewhere, it was at the same place every night, and then you went home and went to bed. It is a tough deal,” he said.
The governor said the Muslim Holy Day of Ramadan started Aug. 1, and the group was briefed on the holy day and the respect the troops show for this holy day in the Middle East. “The military is very cognizant of it,” he said. “You realize you’re working in very different environment and culture. For example, you are not supposed to fly for an hour and a half after sundown, so we aren’t.”
The governor said he appreciated the opportunity to visit with the soldiers. “It has been for me an incredibly eye-opening experience,” he said. “You begin to understand the scope of what we’re doing and the conditions we’re doing it under.”
The governor's schedule will not be announced in advance, but, as of Tuesday afternoon, the group has visited Ali Al Salem Air Base, Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and Joint Air Base Balad, Taji Air Base and Camp Victory in Baghdad.