By Ashley Rowland, Staff Writer
GULFPORT, Miss. -- Gov. Phil Bredesen traveled Thursday to a Mississippi training post and then a military airport, where he greeted a group of Tennessee soldiers arriving in the United States after spending a year in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, commander of hurricane relief efforts in New Orleans, also welcomed about 300 members of the 278th Regimental Combat Team in Gulfport. He thanked them for a "job well ... done" during a brief ceremony inside an airport hangar.
Almost 1,300 of the Knoxville-based 278th's nearly 4,000 soldiers have arrived at Camp Shelby, Miss., where the unit trained before deploying to Iraq. All but 300 soldiers will return by Nov. 4, Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett said Thursday.
The 278th's regimental motto is "I volunteer, sir."
Gov. Bredesen and first lady Andrea Conte flew to Hattiesburg, Miss., and rode to Camp Shelby, where members of the 278th will undergo several days of medical testing and final paperwork before being sent home.
"Everyone in Tennessee is proud of you," he told about two dozen soldiers eating in the camp's cafeteria.
Gov. Bredesen ate a lunch of a hamburger, mashed potatoes, green beans and salad and chatted with the soldiers, who began returning to Mississippi on Monday.
Chief Warrant Officer Joyce Simpson, of Athens, Tenn., who sat across the table from the governor, said he asked if she expected to have trouble returning to civilian life. He also asked if she had a job waiting for her.
The high school art teacher, who made sure enough food was delivered to serve 6,000 to 8,000 meals a day at Camp Caldwell, Iraq, told Gov. Bredesen she planned to return to her job and didn't expect any problems.
Maj. John Mark Windle, a state representative from Livingston, Tenn., asked Gov. Bredesen about events surrounding TennCare during the meal.
"He said we've had to work hard, and he said things are going to be OK," Maj. Windle said.
Lt. David Andrews of Athens was eating lunch with his wife and 3 1'2 year old son when Gov. Bredesen arrived. He said he appreciated Gov. Bredesen's visit.
"It's a nice gesture. But we've been away for a year, so it's not like we follow politics," he said.
Gov. Bredesen visited soldiers around the camp and watched a video about their time in Iraq before traveling to Gulfport, about an hour away. He, Lt. Gen. Honore and Maj. Gen. Hargett shook hands with the soldiers as they stepped off the stairs leading from their plane.
"It's nice. It's great that he supports us," said Sgt. 1st Class Charles Collins of Nashville.