Idaho soldiers were so effective in Iraq, the State Department used their mission as a model for other troops, an Idaho National Guard general said in a speech to a City Club of Boise luncheon Wednesday.
Brigadier Gen. Alan Gayhart, who oversaw the 116th Brigade Combat Team in Iraq, spoke glowingly about the 116th's mission to the northern Iraq provinces of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. He said the soldiers went to a region where water treatment, roads, electricity, sewage and trash collection were in shambles after decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and improved infrastructure, health care and governance. "No other brigade before or after the 116th was able to achieve the success of this brigade in the region," he said.
The 4,000-member 116th, which included about 1,800 Idahoans, as well as troops from Oregon, Montana, Utah, North Dakota, New Jersey, Maryland and other states, was deployed for 18 months and spent more than 10 months in Iraq. The 116th turned over responsibility for northern Iraq to the Army's 101st Airborne Division Nov. 1; the soldiers returned to their homes that month.
Gayhart was introduced by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who praised Gayhart and the work of the 116th. "Under Gen. Gayhart's command, the soldiers of the 116th redefined the American soldier," Kempthorne said.
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After his address, Gayhart responded to sometimes pointed audience questions. One person asked if the 116th will be deployed to Iraq again. Gayhart said that is unlikely because the brigade wouldn't be eligible to go back for another six years.
"Iraq will be a distant memory before the 116th goes back," he said.
Several questions dealt with continued violence in Iraq and the chances for democracy there. Gayhart said goals for Iraq should be realistic: The focus should not be on an American-style democracy, but rather an Iraq that neither persecutes its citizens nor threatens its neighbors.
"It will be difficult for us to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people since our cultures and values are so different," he said.
Iraqis can earn up to $500 to set a roadside bomb, and with rampant unemployment it's sometimes hard to tell if a bomber is a hardened terrorist, desperate or a criminal let loose when Hussein emptied Iraq's prisons, he said.
A continuing problem for the Idaho Guard is an equipment shortage — much of the equipment members took to Iraq stayed there. Gayhart said keeping soldiers' skills sharp is the Guard's biggest concern, and Idaho National Guard Adj. Gen. Larry Lafrenz, who attended the luncheon, said with snowpacks above normal in much of Idaho, he is concerned about spring floods, to which the Guard may have to respond.
In closing remarks, Gayhart said he was pleased with the 116th's work and glad to come home, but he would like to go back to Iraq to continue helping the Iraqi people — though he doubts that will happen. "I also had this sense of regret that we left a mission and didn't have a chance to complete it," he said.