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Governor pays visit to 81st Brigade in Iraq

Surprise trip ends speculation about whereabouts

Gov. Chris Gregoire fulfilled a promise this week that she made last summer to departing Washington National Guard troops: that she’d visit them in Iraq. And after spending part of Tuesday with some units in Baghdad, she said soldiers on their second or third tour told her the current deployment is much different from earlier ones.

“The last time they were here, they said it was like the wild, wild West,” Gregoire said in a telephone news conference from Baghdad, which ended a little before 10 a.m. Tuesday, or slightly before midnight in Iraq. It’s less violent now, the troops told her, and less dangerous than in 2004.

Gregoire said the State and Defense departments required her to keep her visit to the 81st Brigade under wraps until Tuesday morning. She said she’d be visiting troops elsewhere in the country today but couldn’t reveal locations in advance. She was tentatively scheduled to return home Thursday.

Units of the 81st are spread throughout the country. Many are on convoy protection duty.

Gregoire ate lunch and dinner with troops Tuesday and held a town hall meeting in which she told them that U.S. governors and Washington’s congressional delegation would do everything possible to fight any suggestion of cuts in benefits for returning veterans.

“Morale is high,” she said. “I told them we couldn’t be more proud of them.”

The 81st has suffered no fatalities and just two injuries since arriving in Iraq in late fall, she said.

Gregoire also received a briefing in the new U.S. Embassy from Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who told her he was looking forward to retiring soon and settling with his family in Spokane Valley.

“What a wonderful asset he’s going to be to Washington state,” she said.

Gregoire told members of the 81st Brigade at their farewell ceremony in Yakima 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 rescheduled for this week, and she left Sunday for Washington, D.C., for a briefing with Pentagon officials. The governor then flew to Kuwait on Monday, along with Gov. Jon Corzine, of New Jersey, and Gov. Rick Perry, of Texas.

Her absence from the state, coupled with her staff’s inability to say where she was, fueled media speculation that she had gone to the nation’s capital to accept a spot in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

Gregoire said she wasn’t aware of the speculation, but she has told the Obama transition team she isn’t interested in an appointment.

“I have no intention of leaving the state,” she said.

Gregoire’s whereabouts came into question Monday afternoon, when her office abruptly canceled a Tuesday speech at a forum sponsored by the Associated Press.

The 81st is scheduled to return to the United States in July.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com.


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