NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam says his first experience visiting deployed service members from Tennessee in Iraq and Kuwait is proving to be an "incredible eye-opening experience."
"My main impression is a huge appreciation of the work that the men and women are doing over here," Haslam said, speaking to Tennessee reporters Tuesday on a conference call about his unannounced trip.
The governor, whose call came from a Kuwaiti base, said the "working conditions are incredibly hard and the work they're doing is difficult and dangerous still."
He left the country Monday with Govs. Steve Beshear of Kentucky, Brian Sandoval of Nevada and Gary Herbert of Utah.
Haslam said he was invited by the U.S. Defense Department on the Pentagon-funded trip because of the number of Tennessee servicemen and women in Iraq and Kuwait. The governor had visited five or six bases, including the Baghdad International Airport, which is also a base, by the time he spoke with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Between 30 and 100 Tennesseans have been at each base, Haslam said. Temperatures are hitting 130 degrees during the day, which Haslam said has been aptly described as like experiencing hot air from a handheld hair dryer blowing directly into the face. He said he and his fellow governors have been traveling largely on C-130 transport planes and Black Hawk helicopters.
"It's just hot as blazes, and it's hard to describe," Haslam said. "You're just sitting on the ground and you're saying, 'Start the engines, let's get started.'"
Haslam said the soldiers are focused on their duties, thoughts of family and home as well as returning to the U.S. Soldiers peppered him with questions ranging from the economy to how well Tennessee-based football teams will do this fall.
"When you're away from home for almost a year, you just miss home," Haslam said.
The governors were briefed about Islamic customs by military officials and instructed not to eat or drink in front of Iraqis who are fasting during the day for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
With regard to the federal debt ceiling, which was increased this week by the House and Senate, Haslam said he is relieved a deal was agreed to and approved.
"I haven't been able to go into the details, but I felt it was really important to come to a conclusion," he said. "Whether the deal they got to is the best deal. ... I'm pretty out of touch."
The governor is expected to return to Tennessee this weekend. He said military officials have asked him not to reveal his next stops, a common security practice.