Gov. Chris Gregoire says Washington National Guard troops in Baghdad tell her their current deployment “is nothing like it was before.”
“The last time they were here, they said it was like the wild, wild West,” Gregoire said in a telephone press conference from Bagdad, which ended a little before 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Northwest but slightly before midnight in Iraq. “Overall, it is very different than what it was” in 2004.
Gregoire is in the middle of a surprise visit to the 81st Brigade, which she said the State and Defense Departments required her office keep under wraps until this morning. She said she’d be visiting troops stationed elsewhere in the country on Wednesday, but couldn’t reveal locations in advance.
She is tentatively scheduled to return home Thursday.
Units of the 81st are spread throughout the country; many of them are on convoy protection duty.
Gregoire made the trip with New Jersey Gov. John Corzine and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
She ate lunch and dinner with different units on Tuesday, met with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker at the new embassy and held a town hall meeting where she assured troops that all the states’ governors and Washington’s congressional delegation would do everything possible to fight any suggestion of cuts in benefits for returning veterans.
Gregoire had told members of the 81st Brigade at their farewell ceremony last summer that she hoped to visit them in Iraq. The Defense Department recently offered her a visit next week, which she said she had to decline because she would have missed her own swearing in ceremony.
The trip was then rescheduled for this week, and she left Sunday for Washington, D.C., for a briefing with Pentagon officials, then flew to Kuwait on Monday.
Her absense from the state, coupled with her staff’s inability to say where she was, fueled medial speculation that she had gone to the nation’s capital to accept a spot in President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet.
Gregoire said she wasn’t aware of the speculation, but she previously told the Obama transition team she wasn’t interested in an appointment. “I have no intention of leaving the state.”
She added she was sorry about any speculation her unannounced absense caused, but the tight-lipped posture was required by the State Department.
“You’re not at liberty to discuss it,” she said of the trip.