In mid-April, I joined a U.S. Department of Defense trip to Kuwait and Afghanistan to visit our South Dakota National Guard soldiers and airmen.
South Dakota currently has about 450 National Guard troops in the Middle East, and I had a chance to see nearly 100 of them.
My first day and night was spent in Kuwait. We landed in Kuwait City and then drove to Camp Arifjan. I met a few South Dakota National Guard soldiers who had driven from a nearby base.
Although we had planned to fly by helicopter to another base, Camp Buehring, a dust storm made flying impossible. We drove instead through blowing sand and dust, traversing areas where overland oil pipelines and countless overhead electric transmission towers dominated the countryside. Only along some parts of the road did we find any growing plants, where they had been planted and watered.
When we reached Camp Buehring, I met two groups of South Dakota National Guard soldiers on the flight line. Our troops' morale was very good, and I told them how proud we are of them and how grateful we are for their service to our country. While we were together, dust caused the sun to become only a pale disk in the sky. Eventually, the dust obliterated the sun entirely.
The next day we traveled to Afghanistan. We landed in Kabul and met with military leaders for an overview. We then traveled by helicopter to Bagram, where emergency medical facilities treat wounded warriors. We visited with the staff, and spoke with one young soldier with serious injuries. The colonel who was in charge of the hospital showed us a compact pocket tourniquet, which every soldier carries, to use in case of emergency.
During the next two days, we traveled to several forward-operating bases. Each time, we began by donning body armor and helmets. The helicopter we traveled in was equipped with mounted machine guns on both sides. Several other armed soldiers accompanied us.
Afghanistan is a country with a great deal of very dry, rocky, mountainous terrain. Even though it was springtime, much of the country had little or no vegetation. Blowing sand was not uncommon. Other prominent features in Afghanistan were the high walls surrounding most homes and even many fields. In South Dakota, many fences are built to contain or exclude livestock. In Afghanistan, the walls and fences seem designed to protect against threatening people.
I met a unit of soldiers at the Deh Dadi II forward-operating base. While on base, the soldiers were working and sleeping behind large sand walls. I thanked them for their service, and told them we were keeping them in our thoughts and prayers.
That night, we left Afghanistan and flew to Landstuhl, Germany, where the most severely injured troops are sent. The next morning, we saw the same soldier we'd met when she was first treated at Bagram. We spoke to another soldier who was shot through the chest and lost part of his lung. We visited still another soldier who'd been shot in the lower extremities, with permanent damage. His two buddies had also been shot. He estimated that the person who shot them was only about 10 years old.
When I landed in South Dakota, her prairies were lush and green. No armed escorts were needed, nor any body armor. Well-kept houses were surrounded by green lawns. A few had decorative fences.
I am grateful to live in a civilized, free nation, and in a beautiful state where I feel safe. Here, I can vote for my own government, travel when and where I want, say what I think, practice the religion of my choosing, and live a life free from fear or oppression.
America IS what it is, and South Dakota IS what it is, because we are free. We all owe a great debt to the military men and women who wear our nation's uniforms. Over the centuries, their service has earned and protected the freedoms we enjoy. That freedom has enabled the wonderful lives we lead.
We are fortunate that our soldiers and airmen will soon be coming home. They have shown unbeatable resolve and courage. I look forward to welcoming them, as they rejoin our communities, our workforce, and our state. And I have a heightened appreciation for what they have done for us.