Gov. Dirk Kempthorne was in familiar territory Friday: 25,000 feet up in the rattling belly of a C-130.
Kempthorne had just left Fort Hood, Texas, where he visited Idaho National Guard soldiers training for a yearlong mission to Afghanistan, and he was heading back in an Idaho Air Guard military transport plane. It was the latest in a long line of military trips Kempthorne has taken during his political career, including visits to several war zones.
As more and more Idaho troops have been deployed to international war zones — the Guard alone has sent about 4,000 servicemen and women overseas since the fall of 2001, a number that includes multiple deployments for the same individuals — Kempthorne has made it a point to be there for training, to see them off, to shake each soldier's hand, to visit them abroad and to greet them when they come home. Why? He's not running for re-election, so it's not the obvious answer.
"I feel it's my responsibility, my duty," he said in an interview with The Statesman during his Fort Hood visit.
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Kempthorne has taken a keen interest in the military since entering politics and has made military issues a cornerstone of his governorship. During a presentation Friday on the training that Idaho soldiers from the 1-183rd Aviation Battalion are receiving in Fort Hood, Kempthorne grilled the speaker on specifics, including what kind of equipment and armor the soldiers will receive.
Capt. Mark Anders, who helps oversee soldier training at Fort Hood, said Kempthorne's visit marked the first time an out-of-state governor had visited his troops in the year and a half he has been at Fort Hood.
"It's great for the soldiers," Anders said. "Morale is already high, but it just reiterates that there's support back home."
As a freshman senator in 1994, Kempthorne joined the Armed Services Committee and visited U.S. troops in Somalia three months after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a two-day street battle with local militiamen in Mogadishu. A year later, he visited NATO and U.S. military leaders in Croatia and Sarajevo during a Bosnian peacekeeping mission.
"I talked to generals and troops and asked them about lessons learned," he said.
Kempthorne has no military experience. The 54-year-old was a high school and college student during much of the Vietnam War and said he would have served if drafted.
"My attitude was, 'If my number's called then that's it,'" he said.
Kempthorne said his lack of a military background does not account for his interest in the military and noted that the Founding Fathers established the "tremendous principle" of civilian control of the military.
"I think if you love your country, you love your state and you appreciate history, you appreciate the military," he said.
As governor, Kempthorne is commander-in-chief of the Idaho National Guard and said he feels personally responsible for the soldiers he sends into harm's way.
When 1,800 Idaho National Guard soldiers were deployed to Iraq with the 116th Brigade Combat Team last year, Kempthorne wanted to visit them.
His trip was canceled three times, but he persisted with the Department of Defense and finally made it in October, visiting Idaho soldiers in Kuwait and Kirkuk.
Wearing an Idaho National Guard baseball cap while touring Fort Hood, Kempthorne explained his reason for going abroad to see Idaho troops.
"How can I keep standing on the tarmac and telling these troops Godspeed if I'm not willing to go out there myself?" he said.
Idaho National Guard Adj. Gen. Larry Lafrenz, who came to Fort Hood with the governor, called Kempthorne a "tremendous supporter of the military" and said by visiting troops he "inspires these young men and women to do their best."
"He doesn't do it because he feels obligated. He does it because it's the right thing to do," Lafrenz said.
Spc. Brandy Arreola, a 183rd soldier from Idaho who met the governor during his visit to Fort Hood, said seeing Kempthorne reassures soldiers that the state isn't "just trying to send us to a war zone" without proper consideration.
"It's always good when you have your state officials show up," Arreola said.
Kempthorne is often one of the first people in Idaho to receive news of soldier deaths, and he tries to speak to the soldiers' families as soon as possible. He called it "the most somber part of my job."
He has attended several military funerals and in June spoke at a service for Cpl. Carrie French of Caldwell, the first female Idaho soldier to die in Iraq.
"What can be more profound than to be there and witness the suffering of a family who is broken-hearted over the loss of a loved one," he said.
Kempthorne will be back at Fort Hood at the end of the month to say goodbye to the 183rd.
He hopes to see them next in Afghanistan — a visit he has already started negotiating with the Department of Defense.
"I told the Department of Defense, 'I must see them,'" he said.