Weekly Column of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander - Iraq Trip

Posted on April 6, 2005

There are so many thousands of Tennesseans serving in Iraq and Kuwait that I almost felt “at home” visiting there last week. My wife, Honey, and I were greeted at the Kuwait airport by Chris Rimel, an Army reservist who is publisher of the Dyersburg News and co-publisher/editor of the Dyersburg State Gazette. We had dinner with the 844th Engineer Combat Battalion, based in Knoxville, which includes more than 500 Tennesseans. One of these reservists is Sgt. Amanda Bunch, a nursing assistant at Asbury Place in Maryville, where my mother and grandfather lived. The school superintendent from Athens, the president of the Lexington Rotary club, and three Blount County deputies are all among those serving in Iraq with the Tennessee National Guard. I may have felt “at home,” but “no place here is entirely safe” according to Lt. Col. Don Dinello, who commands the 844th. A few days earlier a patrol had discovered explosives on a bridge over which his soldiers might have traveled. Thankfully, the explosive device was disarmed before anyone was hurt. In Baghdad I ate lunch with three marines who were recent high school graduates from Savannah, Manchester and Tullahoma. Their mission is to guard the U.S. Embassy. I asked what a United States Senator should know about their work. “Not much to know, sir,” said Andrew Pottier of Savannah. “They shoot at us and we just shoot them back.” Not even the Green Zone, where several thousand Americans work every day, is entirely safe. The protocol officer greeted us wearing a nice green dress covered by a flak jacket. When Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who traveled with me, went to the ladies restroom, a female soldier with an AK-47 went first inspecting every stall. On the other hand, since every incident is reported 24 hours a day on television, it is hard to grasp the true security picture. U.S. casualties are significantly down. Twelve of the 17 Iraqi provinces are relatively without incident. An average 800 supply trucks convoy each day from Kuwait to the edge of Baghdad. Since August, there have been 166 attacks on these trucks killing two soldiers. Forty percent of those serving in Iraq and Kuwait are reservists or guardsmen. Most left behind families, jobs and mortgages for up to 18 months. Far from home they are dealing with child custody, insurance, and births and deaths. Thirty percent of the members of the 844th are continuing their education online. I brought home information so I can help seven reservists who are having trouble with their citizenship applications. I traveled to Iraq and Kuwait with six other senators, led by the Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. We also met the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Georgia, Ukraine and France. Here are three other findings: 1. Armored vehicles - Commanders in Kuwait assured me that no humvee or truck is now going into a combat zone without Level I or Level II armor. 2. Training Iraqi forces - 147,000 Iraqis now have had some level of training. The progress is impressive but not complete. We met with Gen. David Patraeus, the former commander of Ft. Campbell’s 101st Airborne Division and one of our most accomplished military leaders, who is now in charge of this training. 3. Infant democracies - We have sacrificed many lives and paid a heavy price in dollars to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. But without that decision there would be no infant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Georgia and Ukraine and Kuwait would be less democratic, and Syria would not be pulling troops out of Lebanon. We and the world are safer without Saddam Hussein who the new Prime Minister Designee of Iraq told us “had buried alive 300,000 of his own people.” When will our troops come home? I believe we must have a success strategy, not just an exit strategy. This strategy should be based on whether Iraqis can reasonably defend themselves and whether they have some sort of constitutional government. Having liberated Iraq, it is now not our job to stay there until there is a perfect democracy. After all, it took us Americans 12 years to write a Constitution after declaring our independence and another 130 years to give women the right to vote. I would hope that after the two Iraqi elections scheduled for the end of 2005 we will begin to see large numbers of Tennesseans coming home. But our average stay in other instances when the United States has helped nations build democracies, as in Germany and Japan, has been five years. The Presbyterian Chaplain of the 844th , Rev. Tim Fary from Rhea County, and I had met before. He was then 8 years old, and I was Governor. I was playing the piano with the Chattanooga symphony at a Fourth of July concert at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. He was lost. He told me, “When I found my parents two hours later I had a handwritten note that read, ‘Dear Tim, Thank you for your advice. Governor Lamar Alexander.’ That note kept me out of trouble. I still have it.” We hope Tim’s prayers as well as our own will keep our brave Tennesseans safe so they can accomplish their mission and come home soon.