State of Illinois

Office of Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                   

Friday, January 16, 2004

 

 

Letter-to-the-Editor
(968 words)

MEETING U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ A "TRANSFORMING EXPERIENCE" FOR LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR

As 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.

To 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.

As 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!)

As 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 hostage crisis.

It was also my solemn duty to escort home the coffins of two American soldiers killed in action.

Iraq 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.

Our 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.

And 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.

This 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.

Another 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 American soldier.

Thanks 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.

The 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.

The 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 Relief".

Abraham 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.

Another 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 counted.

The 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.

For 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.

 

Sincerely,

                                   

 

Pat Quinn

Illinois Lieutenant Governor

 

(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 Leader Tour".)