AN AIR BASE IN AFGHANISTAN — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said seeing Utah troops face to face is the most important reason he is visiting Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, where he spoke to reporters via satellite on Tuesday.
Next to that, having a new perspective to better plan for the future of the Utah National Guard, which he commands, is an important reason to see, hear and smell what's happening in the Middle East.
"I'm the commander in chief of the Utah Army/Air National Guard, and we have those people here. And it's probably important for me to understand why — what is the mission, how is it being accomplished, what is the plan, what are the goals and objectives — so I can have a better appreciation for my own troops that are there serving," he said.
"There's an awareness component here to help me and other governors understand what's taking place here, and that will help us work with our congressional delegation, with the people back home, as we explain the whys and wherefores of our activities here in the Middle East," he said.
Herbert is traveling with fellow Govs. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Steve Beshear of Kentucky.
The visit will help him better plan future training budgets for the Utah National Guard, he said, "making sure that our National Guard people have the appropriate resources, good resources, and prepare them for the potential of being called some place in the world."
The tour, hosted by the Defense Department, includes briefing from high-level commanders and with troops serving in the field. Herbert said one of his drivers on Tuesday was "a kid that was raised right next door to me in Orem."
"It's important for me to come and show my appreciation for those soldiers from Utah, as well as soldiers from other states," Herbert said. "For the people back home, appreciate the service that our troops are rendering, the sacrifice that they and their families are giving, and appreciate that they have good leadership here, in Afghanistan and Iraq."
The governor said he was invited on the tour only several weeks ago. He ordered commander's coins before the trip to give troops on the ground once he got there. The Army describes the souvenir coins as "powerful symbols that promote pride, build cohesion, and increase morale within an organization."
O.C. Tanner manufactured the coins, somewhat larger than a silver dollar, which have the state seal and the governor's name in relief. "As they presented them to me as I was going to the plane Sunday, they said 'These are for the troops. There is no charge,'" Herbert said.
A first for Herbert, who is also a veteran, was the chance to observe a ramp ceremony, which is the last honor given to fallen troops before their bodies leave the battle area. The ceremony involves the casket being loaded on the transport plane that takes both the body and a military escort home.
"I had a great experience, to see that up close and personal," he said.
Herbert said the military has changed a lot since his service in the 1970s. "But the soul and spirit of the military is the same. The patriotism. The willingness to sacrifice and serve your country. That's the same."
The governor's entourage will make a stop in Germany before traveling home. He said he expects to be back in Utah by the weekend.