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, Dept of Defense
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert visits U.S. soldiers on a special tour in Iraq Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert says visiting troops in Iraq has given him a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices made by Utah's fighting men and women.

"There's nothing better than being able to see it up close and personal," Herbert said Tuesday in a satellite interview from Kuwait.

The governor met with Utah National Guard troops in Iraq on Tuesday, and he'll also visit Utah soldiers in Afghanistan during the surprise mission. The visit came together quickly — and with a lot of secrecy.

But Herbert said he was glad to get the invitation from the Department of Defense, which is picking up the tab for the trip.

"Until you're here, where you can see it, feel it, smell it and taste it, you don't quite understand as much as you can," he said.

Herbert was on the ground in Iraq just as 100 members of the Utah National Guard's Triple Deuce began arriving in waves. More of the battalion's 475 troops were expected to land in Iraq over the next 24 hours.

"These are very difficult circumstances," the governor said. "This is not easy. But they're representing themselves and their families and their state very well."

The 2nd Battalion, 222nd Field Artillery left Utah last month — some of them on their third or fourth deployments to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The southern Utah unit will work security in Iraq.

"I'm honored to be invited," Herbert said, "and I'm glad to pat them on the back and tell them we love them. It's also helping me to have a better insight on this war on terror."

From Herbert's perspective, the mission seems to be going well. The governor met with U.S. military commanders in Iraq. The Triple Deuce is there, as some military leaders put it, "to turn out the lights." Commanders tell Herbert it's time for the Iraqis to take full control.

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"The Iraqis, I think, are ready to do that," he said. "I think they're prepared to stand up, and we've announced we're going to be leaving (Dec. 31)."

The war zone is tense, Herbert said, and the heat is stifling — as hot as 126 degrees one day. That makes the soldiers' tasks even tougher, he said.

"There's no way to ever repay them; there's just no way," Herbert said. "They deserve our thanks forever."

Herbert is traveling with fellow Govs. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Steve Beshear of Kentucky. He expects to be home this weekend.

E-mail: jboal@desnews.com