- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

RICHMOND — Thanks to an invitation from the Pentagon, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine secretly slipped away from the state capital this week to get a firsthand look at how Virginia’s troops are holding up in the Middle East.

“I’m just telling them how grateful we are,” Mr. Kaine told reporters Tuesday during a conference call from Camp Arifjan in southern Kuwait. “I’m running into Virginians everywhere.”

Mr. Kaine is one of at least 10 governors who the Pentagon has taken to Iraq since the Department of Defense started the bipartisan program in November, said Kevin Hall, the governor’s spokesman.

Mr. Kaine was joined by Republican Govs. Kenny Guinn of Nevada and Jim Douglas of Vermont and Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee.

Mr. Kaine yesterday said the visit had reaffirmed his belief that the United States should not pick an arbitrary date for pulling troops out of Iraq.

“This is not something in Iraq where you can just set a date and say, ‘We will leave by this date,’” he said.

Instead, Mr. Kaine said, he would like the United States to disengage “over time, as Iraqis get stronger and stronger.”

On Sunday, Mr. Kaine boarded a plane under stiff Department of Defense security. He arrived in Kuwait on Monday and had dinner with troops from Virginia.

Yesterday, he went to the Ali Al Salem air base and had breakfast with more of Virginia’s troops.

From there, he flew aboard a C130 to Balad air base, before taking a helicopter into Baghdad, where he visited the 157 Virginians based there.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, almost 4,500 Virginia Army National Guard soldiers and almost 1,100 Virginia Air National Guard troops have served in Iraq.

In Baghdad, Mr. Kaine said he heard machine-gun fire from afar, but felt safe as he chatted with members of 654th Military Police Company, a unit of the Virginia National Guard that deployed in January.

“They are going to be here for about a year, but their morale was high,” Mr. Kaine said.

Yesterday, some guardsmen were holed up in barracks originally built for Saddam Hussein’s political guard, Mr. Kaine said.

The digs included a makeshift tiki bar. “They are really trying to do all they can to keep spirits high,” Mr. Kaine said, adding that the bar was nonalcoholic.

Mr. Kaine also visited with the 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation, which is a helicopter unit headquartered at the Virginia Army National Guard facility at Richmond International Airport.

Today, the bipartisan group of governors heads to Afghanistan.

Mr. Kaine is scheduled to return Friday to Richmond.

“I’ve been getting requests [from troops] scribbled on cards and letters to call family members,” he said. “I probably have about 100 phone calls to make.”

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