MEETING U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ A
"TRANSFORMING EXPERIENCE" FOR LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR
my plane took off from a heavily-guarded runway at Baghdad International
Airport in early January, I thought about the families back home with loved
ones on the frontlines. I thought about the high spirits of the Hundreds of
American soldiers I'd met over the past few days, and the millions of Iraqi
people who were experiencing their first taste of freedom.
spend the New Year's holidays meeting our troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar
with a delegation of NASCAR drivers and employers of National Guard and
Reserve members was unbelievable enough. But we also witnessed firsthand the
difficult living conditions in the bases, the constant danger of terrorist
ambushes, and the unique challenge of building a democratic peace in a place
unaccustomed to self-governance.
the first elected statewide official in the United States to tour the combat
zone, I bunked in military tents and joined the troops at their mess hall for
meals. I traveled 100 miles with a heavily-armed military convoy into the
so-called "Sunni Triangle" and flew aboard a Black Hawk helicopter
to visit troops in two forward operating bases in Iraq. (Never fly in a helicopter
with NASCAR drivers!)
part of the five-day, 15,500-mile trip, I delivered Illinois state flags to
be flown at five bases where Illinois troops are stationed and met with a
Peoria-based Air National Guard unit dispatched to Iran for earthquake
relief, the first U.S. military aircraft to land in Iran since the 1979
was also my solemn duty to escort home the coffins of two American soldiers
killed in action.
is a dangerous place. Lethal instruments of terrorism litter the countryside,
such as "improvised explosive devices", remote-controlled bombs
inserted in animal carcasses. Mortar shelling can be heard nightly. Power
outages, gas shortages and a neglected infrastructure bedevil urban areas.
The villages are poor and polluted, the villagers numb.
troops endure miserable conditions. In July, temperatures soared to 141
degrees. Now, mud is everywhere. While some troops stay in touch with loved
ones via e-mail, regular mail is painfully slow. Hot showers are rare.
yet, our remarkable troops are playing vital roles in instilling democracy.
They're deeply involved in grassroots "civil duties" such as
advising local governments on creating post offices, rebuilding shattered
school systems, and facilitating town hall meetings where everyone wants to
have their say.
is an interesting untold story. To be in Iraq at the birth of their new
nation and watch our soldiers in their roles as grassroots teachers of
democracy was inspiring. We're involved in the most comprehensive effort to
help a nation rebuild civilian society in more than a half-century, and young
U.S. soldiers are the builders.
untold story is the high proportion of National Guard members and reservists
who now comprise our fighting forces (more than 25 percent today and
projected to be as high as 40 percent in May). Since September 11, 2001,
193,959 National Guard members and reservists have been called to active
duty, including 4,648 from Illinois. We're relying more heavily on our
citizen soldiers than ever before. They represent the new face of the
to the Cubs or White Sox cap I wore, I met hundreds of Illinois National
Guard members, reservists and regular troops from Illinois at several
military bases and assured them they haven't been forgotten on the homefront.
I shared with them some of the acts of generosity by everyday people back
home who are organizing bake sales and fundraising events to lend a helping
hand to the families of those who serve.
trip strengthened my resolve to make the Illinois Military Family Relief Fund
tax check-off a success. This model program enables Illinois taxpayers to
voluntarily donate to the Fund on their state income tax forms.
first of its kind in the nation, the Illinois Military Family Relief Fund
assists the families of Illinois National Guard members and reservists who
experience a financial hardship when the breadwinner is called to active
duty. Some 1,642 families have received $667,500 from the Fund already. I
urge every taxpayer to use the state income tax check-off to donate $20, $10,
$1 or whatever you can afford to the box marked "Military Family
Lincoln reminded us of our duty as citizens to 'care for them who have borne
the battle.' The Military Family Relief Fund is one way to do just that.
way to help the troops is to pass a law enabling military personnel to vote
by fax or e-mail. The 2000 Presidential election showed how crucial each vote
is and how long a mail-in ballot from overseas takes to get to local election
authorities. Imagine being on active duty 6,000 miles away and being deprived
of the right to vote for Commander-in-Chief? Let's make sure the votes of
every Illinois National Guard member, reservist and military regular are
visit reminded me that we often take for granted our basic freedoms. The
ousted Iraqi regime was a genocidal dictatorship, modeled on the violent
European fascist parties of the 1930's, so their society is undergoing a
profound transformation. Our troops are risking their lives daily as
ambassadors of democracy. We owe each soldier a permanent debt of gratitude.
photos from the trip or information on the Illinois Military Family Relief
Fund, visit OperationHomeFront.org, a site set up by my office, which has already
registered 3.5 million hits.
(Illinois Lieutenant Governor
Pat Quinn spearheaded the drive to create the Illinois Military Family Relief
Fund. His trip to Iraq was at the invitation of the U.S. Department of
Defense as part of the "Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Civic