Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he is visiting soldiers in a “hot as blazes” Iraq and Kuwait as part of an “incredibly eye-opening experience” arranged by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The governor, speaking in a telephone news conference with Tennessee reporters, said the temperature was 130 degrees and compared it to “living all day with your hair dryer on high and turning it on your face.”
It all has left him “very, very impressed” with the soldiers and the job they are doing as they prepare for withdrawal of American troops by Dec. 31, as things stand now, he said.
“The working conditions are incredibly hard the work they doing is still difficult and dangerous,” Haslam said.
“Every one them really, really messes being home,” he said, but at the same time “they are glad, almost to a person,” to be serving their country in the Middle East.
Haslam said he flew out of Washington on Monday morning and had spent a full day visiting “five or six” bases in Iraq and Kuwait at the time he talked with reporters. The governor said his trip would continue for another three days, though he said military rules prohibited him from saying where he would visit.
He is traveling with the governors of Kentucky, Utah and Nevada, traveling between bases in Blackhawk helicopters and C130 transport airplanes, Haslam said.
Tennessee soldiers encountered – both from National Guard units and regular Army and Air Force units – mostly asked him questions about the Titans football team, the University of Tennessee football team and the status of the state’s economy, Haslam said. The latter topic dominated most discussion.
Haslam declined comment on Congress’ approval of a budget deal allowing an increase in the federal debt ceiling, saying he was “a little out of touch” because of his traveling and does not know details of the deal and its potential impact on the state. He did say he was relieved that the crisis has passed.
“I think it was important to come to a conclusion,” he said.
A TV report on the Senate’s action on the deal was being broadcast as he visited troops in a cafeteria, Haslam said, but the broadcast drew only passing attention from the men and women on hand.
“These are people who have been away from home eight, ten months in a dangerous situation,” he said. “They have a pretty long list of concerns already.”
Haslam said the soldiers stay full time on their bases, — most now staffed with “half American, half Iraqi” forces – and work 12-hour days in heat that is “just hot as blazes.” He said the group of governors is staying on the bases and sharing meals with soldiers they visit.
Haslam’s office said the governor has visited Ali Al Salem Air Base and Camp Arifjan in Kuwait and Joint Air Base Balad, Taji Air Base, Camp Victory Baghdad, Baghdad International Airport military base in Iraq.
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen made a similar trip to Iraq and Kuwait in 2009.