Montana National Guard troops stationed in Kuwait and Afghanistan had a surprise visit this week from their commander in chief, Gov. Steve Bullock.
The Montana governor, on a trip arranged by the Pentagon, came away impressed.
“It’s a long way from Montana, for sure, but Montanans are making a difference here, and we in Montana have a lot to be proud of,” he said in a phone interview with Lee Newspapers State Bureau from Kabul, Afghanistan.
When interviewed, Bullock had already spent time Tuesday at a town meeting with the men and women serving in the Montana Army National Guard’s 1-189th General Support Aviation Brigade and military leadership in Kuwait.
He was scheduled to meet Wednesday with troops in Afghanistan from the Montana Army National Guard’s 495th, a Combat Sustainment Support Battalion.
News of the trip, arranged by the U.S. Department of Defense, was kept confidential.
Bullock said it was 109 degrees when he met with the Montana troops in Kuwait. He took a run at 3 a.m., and it was 97 degrees.
The 189th General Support Aviation Battalion left Montana four months ago for training in Texas and has spent the past two months in Kuwait. These troops will remain there until February or March 2014, while the unit in Afghanistan, which were deployed earlier, will return sooner.
Asked to summarize his town meeting with the Montana National Guard troops in Kuwait, Bullock said:
“I think it’s truly been an incredible experience for them — enabling regional parties, working with the local Kuwaiti Air Force doing sea operations. They’ve been very busy.”
It’s the third or fourth deployment for many of the soldiers, Bullock said.
“They’re definitely in the hottest area climate-wise, but not in the most active theater for combat,” he said. “They really feel like they’re making a difference."
Bullock said he met with a colonel from Texas who is in charge of the troops there.
“He said he wouldn’t be saying this just because I’m the governor, but that he was so happy with the Montana troops, with their work ethic and how they’re working together,” Bullock said.
The Montana governor said he was proud to hear that.
Four months ago, Bullock, accompanied by his 6-year-old son, Cameron, attended the deployment ceremony of the 1-189th when the brigade left Helena. His son asked him how it affected their families when they were sent overseas.
The governor said he was pleased “to have the opportunity to speak with them and to hear about their level of excitement.”
“The Montana enthusiasm spread far behind the border,” Bullock said.
He said he had a great discussion with a fellow Helena High School high school classmate serving in the National Guard assigned to Kuwait.
Bullock said he wanted to thank the families, friends and loved ones of the Montana troops for giving up their family members and the challenges they face in their absence.
“Skype, and things like that, doesn’t replace having a father or a mother at a (kid’s) ballgame,” Bullock said.
The Montana troops are making a big difference in the Middle East, he said.
“Overall, in Montana, we have some wonderful men and women who are making sacrifices not just for our country but for our state,” Bullock said.
He said it’s important that Montanans keep in mind the needs of the National Guard troops when they return to the state concerning issues such as housing and access to the university system.
“It has to be more than just the legislative session, recognizing that what they do can’t be out of sight and out of mind,” Bullock said.
Bullock traveled with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
He said the Department of Defense tries to make one or two trips a year to the Middle East with a couple of governors so they can visit their National Guard units deployed there.
Bullock left Helena Sunday morning and had meetings at the Pentagon in Washington on Monday, departing for Kuwait Monday afternoon.
“It certainly isn’t a junket trip,” Bullock said. “The sleep exhaustion has hit.”
The Montana National Guard troops in Kuwait didn’t receive much notice that he would be meeting with him, Bullock said.
“One was on his fourth deployment, and he said he thought he would never see a Montana governor,” Bullock said.
Bullock was picked up in a Blackhawk helicopter and taken to a town hall meeting with the Montana troops in Kuwait.
He was given the Montana flag flown on the Blackhawk and will fly it over the governor’s mansion.