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Nixon impressed with Missouri troops and equipment encountered during Afghanistan visit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2010 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon spent today in Afghanistan, where he says he was "inspired" and "incredibly impressed by the professionalism" he saw in the troops, especially Missouri's National Guard.

"It's a very, very real war zone that we're in," Nixon said during a telephone conference call with Missouri reporters, conducted Friday night, Afghanistan time.

Nixon said that he and the four other governors on the trip had met today with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces, and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and visited with injured troops in a field hospital.

Petraeus told the governors that he is optimistic that the U.S. and its allies can succeed in their mission of securing the country and ridding it of terrorists who threaten U.S. security at home and abroad.

For the foreseeable future, Nixon said, it appears that at least 1,000 Missouri National Guard troops will be part of that mission.

The governor said he talked to some Missouri Guardsmen who were on their fourth or sixth deployment to a combat zone in Iraq or Afghanistan.

When asked, Nixon acknowledged that he shared U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill's concern about the toll such repeated tours have on Guardsmen and their families -- emotionally, physically and economically.

McCaskill, D-Mo., told reporters here last week that she was concerned about the rising suicide rate among guardsmen and reservists, as well as regular troops, and the economic pressures. She noted that Guardsmen often don't receive the same benefits as regular troops, which she and some congressional allies hope to change.

Nixon said that he was told by medical personnel at the field hospital that they were expanding their mental health unit.

Back in Missouri, Nixon said he hoped to expand and bolster the state's "Show Me Heroes" program and other efforts to encourate the hiring of military veterans and help for their families during their deployments.

Nixon also alluded to the latest death of a Missouri soldier, Army Sgt. Zachary M. Fisher of Ballwin, who was serving in Afghanistan.

On Friday, Nixon ordered that "the U.S. and Missouri flags at state buildings in all 114 counties and the city of St. Louis be flown at half-staff" next Monday, the day of Fisher's funeral, "to honor the bravery and sacrifice" of the sergeant. He was killed on July 14.

State buildings in St. Louis County are to continue to fly flags at half-staff through Aug. 1.

“Our freedoms are possible only because of the courage and self-sacrifice of those who serve in our armed forces,” Nixon said in statement. “As we remember Sergeant Fisher, the family of this brave soldier is in our thoughts and prayers.”

During their trip, Nixon and his fellow governors flew from a U.S. air base in Kuwait to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. They then traveled by UH-60 (Blackhawk) helicopter to Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan, followed by a flight on a C-130 aircraft to Bagram Air Base.

In his visits with soldiers, Nixon said that some had demonstrated weapons manufactured in Missouri.

Overall, the governor said he particularly enjoyed "seeing the products and letting the trained soldiers and airmen show their stuff."

Nixon was allowed to sit at the controls of some of the vehicles and aircraft, but he emphasized that he didn't fly or drive any of them. The governor also observed that he and the other governors traveled in vehicles deemed safer than those used during his last visit last summer.

"I think we're going to accomplish our mission here," Nixon said, while observing that "its a much different theater here than it was in Iraq."

The entourage is barred from discussing its current or future itinerary, but the governor said he could mention that they spent time in Kuwait between their stops in Iraq and Afghanistan. His trip last July took six days.

According to the governor's office, there are six Missouri National Guard units in Afghanistan: the 203rd Engineering Battalion, based in Joplin; and the Guard’s 205th Military Police Battalion, based in Poplar Bluff; the Agri-Business Development Team III and Agri-Business Development Team IV; the 1141st Engineer Company (Sapper), based out of Kansas City; and the 135th Military History Detachment, out of Jefferson City.

In Iraq, there are three Missouri National Guard units: the 1139th Military Police Company, out of Harrisonville; Headquarters and Headquarters Company 3/135 Aviation, out of Lebanon; and the 4175 Military Police Detachment, Criminal Investigation Division, out of Fulton.

In Kuwait, there are about 150 troops with the 1107th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group, based out of Springfield.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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