Gov. Jim Douglas is back in Vermont after a four-day trip visiting soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
Douglas traveled with three other governors: Tim Pawlenty (R-MN), Jay Nixon (D-MO), Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Deval Patrick (D-MA). (Patrick (l) and Rounds (r) flank Douglas in the photo to the right.)
The trip was sponsored by the Department of Defense, which offers such trips to governors on regular basis. This was Douglas' second trip to the war zones. He traveled to Iraq in March 2006.
Douglas' trip comes just weeks after Vermont Army National Guard Spc. Ryan J. Grady was killed by a roadside bomb just outside of the Bagram Air Base. Grady was the 36th soldier with a connection to Vermont who has been killed since the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003.
During the trip, Douglas said he had a chance to speak directly to Vermont guardsman and members of the active duty military.
"They don't believe the American media are accurately reflecting the progress being made here," said Douglas during an early Saturday morning conference call with Vermont reporters. Douglas has remained a staunch supporter of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a vocal, public opposition in Vermont to these occupations.
A broader, national discussion and debate about the war in Afghanistan may change given Sunday's publication of more than 75,000 previously secret wartime documents by the group Wikileaks. The documents shed additional light on why the war in Afghanistan has been a quagmire and has led to the deaths of nearly 2000 coalition force and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, as well as thousands of wounded soldiers and civilians.
Douglas said despite the ongoing criticism of US efforts in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and install a stable government, since the December "surge" of troops — which include 1500 guard members from Vermont — there have been improvements.
Chief among them have been the increasing number of people trained and recruited into the Afghan army under the watch of Brigadier General John Farnham, a Vermonter.
"He has the job of mentoring the police and armed forces and sends a monthly report to the president and they believe things are moving in the right direction," said Douglas, who also met with Gen. David H. Petraeus. "Gen. Petraeus told us, 'I'm not an optimist, I'm not a pessimist, but a realist.'"
That feeling was echoed by the Vermont soldiers Douglas met, and ate with, during his two-day stay in Afghanistan.
"Vermont soldiers believe they are making progress, like commander Petraeus they are really dedicated to their mission and think things are looking up in terms of the increase of security forces, the police, and the legitimization of the government," said Douglas, acknowledging that some of the regional governors appointed by the Afghanistan's president "have been less than helpful."
During his two-day stay in Afghanistan, Douglas met with hundreds of Vermont guardsman stationed in several areas of the country, including Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Bagram Air Force Base and the joint forward operating base in Sharana, which is in the southern part of the country. Others are stationed in a more remote region near the Pakistan border.
While at Bagram Air Base, Douglas stood with troops as they raised the day's battle flag. According to a published report from the military public affairs, that may have been the first time a sitting Vermont governor has raised a battle flag during wartime.
Douglas also met with a Vermont soldier who was injured during the same roadside bomb attack that killed Grady. Douglas said despite the ongoing and escalating attacks, he believed soldiers did have the right equipment they need to protect themselves. But, he said that didn't mean Vermonters shouldn't be prepared for the deaths of additional soldiers.
"I expect regrettably there may be some more," said Douglas.
Here's a rundown of the group's travels:
Tuesday, July 20
The delegation left Andrews Air Force Base Tuesday after meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn (pictured) and visiting Walter Read Army Medical Center.
Wednesday - Thursday, July 21-22
The group arrived at Baghdad International Airport and with with soldiers, including Vermonters, at Camp Victory and Al Faw Palace (pictured right). The group then received a briefing from Lt. General Kenneth Hunzeker, the Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq and the NATO Training Mission in Iraq and had a hands-on MRAP vehicle demonstration. The group also made a brief stop in Kuwait.
Friday - Saturday, July 23-24
The group landed at Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan Friday where Douglas ate lunch with members of the Vermont Army National Guard serving in the 186th Brigade Support Battalion from Winooski, Berlin, Northfield and Windsor.
The Governor and his delegation then met with General David Petraeus, the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry at ISAF Headquarters.
During the day, Douglas visited Joint Base Balad in Iraq where he toured the Combat Support Hospital and Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility (CASF). The CASF is the staging facility where seriously wounded service members gather to be flown to the medical center in Landsthul, Germany. While at Joint Base Balad, the governors also had the opportunity to see demonstrations from the 532nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at the Joint Defense Operation Center.
During his second day in Afghanistan, Douglas had breakfast with Vermont soldiers at the Clamshell Multi-Purpose Facility at Bagram Air Base. Vermont maple syrup was on hand thanks to Operation Maple Sweetness.
The delegation then traveled to Sharana Air Base, south of Kabul where Douglas had the chance to meet with Vermonters from the 3-172 Infantry Company of Westminster. Douglas returned to Vermont Sunday after stopping in Germany at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.