Gov. Pawlenty traveled to Iraq with Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau. The governors of Arizona and Oklahoma were also on the trip. Pawlenty says he asked for another chance to visit Iraq after learning 2,600 Minnesota National Guard troops were having their tours of duty extended by up to 125 days. They were originally scheduled to return home this month. He says he wanted to personally show his appreciation to those men and women.
"We remember them, we're thinking of them, we're grateful for what they're doing, we're so proud of them. And on behalf of Minnesota, I wanted to say 'thank you' to them. And we conveyed that message as loudly and as frequently as we could," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty visited with troops from the 1st Brigade Combat Team in Balad, north of Baghdad. He then traveled to southern Iraq to meet with members of 134th Brigade Support Battalion and other units. Pawlenty says he also met with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and talked about measuring the progress of the recent troop surge. The governor compared it to a last-ditch move by a hockey team losing a game.
"Somebody said to me the other day, 'it's like we pulled our goalie.' To use a Minnesota analogy, we pulled the goalie. Now we have to put pressure down on the other end and try to make it successful," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty says Minnesota soldiers were clearly disappointed to have their tours of duty extended. But overall, he thinks morale is good.
"When you ask them point blank, they all say 'I'm good.' It's very rare, even though I know inside I guess, I can kind discern that they've got some concerns. They're so strong that they don't want to look like they're complaining. But I know from first-hand accounts and interactions that that extension was a real heartbreaker," he said.
Family members back home may be less reluctant to complain. Jessica Larson of Ellendale is waiting for her husband, Sgt. Kody Larson, to return home for Iraq this summer. She says they've both felt betrayed by the military.
“They have realized they've got to finish the mission and they do it with excellence. Their overall morale is good.”Gov. Tim Pawlenty
"I think that the extension was a very big mistake," she said. "And it's not just because I miss my husband and want him home. I know he doesn't feel that they're doing any good over there, so being extended is not helping. They should have come home." Larson says she was pleased to hear the governor had gone to Iraq to visit the troops. Some state lawmakers felt the same.
"I think it's appropriate for the governor of our state to go visit our National Guard troops, said Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis. She doesn't see any problems with the governor being gone at this point in the legislative session.
"I think that it's probably better to do this trip in March, right now, before we get into the heated moments of the session. So, I don't have a concern," Kelliher said.
Legislative leaders received no advance notice of the Republican governor's absence this week. DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis says the governor hasn't spent much time with lawmakers lately anyway. Pawlenty last traveled to Iraq about a year ago with Arizona Sen. John McCain, who's now running for president. Pawlenty is a McCain supporter, and Pogemiller suggested national politics might have played a role in this trip.
"I mean it's pretty apparent that he's got his eyes set on the horizon rather than the current work before the Legislature," Pogemiller said. "But that's obviously his choice. He's the governor of the state. We're going to get the work done here the best we can with or without him."
Gov. Pawlenty says he met last week with legislative leaders and remained in touch with his staff during the trip. He plans to be back in Minnesota this weekend.