Associated Press

Gov. Bredesen meets with Tennessee guard members awaiting deployment


Gov. Bredesen meets with Tennessee guard members awaiting deployment

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 714 words


Gov. Phil Bredesen offered his prayers and support Monday to hundreds of Tennessee guard members awaiting deployment from Fort Campbell, an Army post straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky line.

In his first visit to the post, the Tennessee governor addressed three separate groups of soldiers.

“I just wanted to say, ‘God bless you and godspeed and please come back safe and sound as quickly as you can,”‘ Bredesen told about 40 members of the 168th Military Police Battalion from Lebanon at the base’s Warfighters Center.

Earlier, he gave a pep talk to about 150 guard members at a base auditorium and greeted an additional 100 soldiers at a chapel.

“You’re in a precarious situation, a difficult situation … certainly putting yourselves in the way of danger,” Bredesen said at his first stop, pledging his prayers and those of First Lady Andrea Conte.

The governor’s visits were brief, as he said he didn’t want to intrude on the guard members’ training.

At each stop, Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, the state’s top National Guard official, introduced Bredesen as the guard’s “commander in chief.”

Nearly 3,600 Tennessee guard members have been mobilized, with about 1,400 stationed at Fort Campbell, Hargett said. An additional 150 to 175 guard members have received notices that they might be mobilized.

“Of that 3,600, you can rest assured that about 75 percent of those are going to deploy somewhere other than the continental United States,” Hargett said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll go to Iraq. It could be Kuwait. It could be Turkey.”

The soldiers Bredesen met fulfill a variety of missions.

Some will stay at Fort Campbell to provide base security, while many may join the war in Iraq. Already, about 1,000 Tennessee guard members are stationed overseas, while others await deployment orders. The state has about 14,200 guard members.

“It’ll all depend on how the war goes and where the war fight goes from here,” Hargett said.

Guard members, who have trained at Fort Campbell for about two months, greeted Bredesen’s visit with appreciation and a bit of amusement.

“It builds up the morale to see who he is and what his policies are,” said Sgt. 1st Class Paul Puckett, a 39-year-old postal carrier from Murfreesboro.

But a few chuckled when Bredesen inadvertently referred to the “war in Iran.”

“Maybe he knows something we don’t,” one joked outside the auditorium. Another guard member said, “Got to shake some hands and kiss those babies,” as television cameras followed Bredesen as he interacted with the troops.

The lightheartedness reflected the guard members’ confidence as they prepare for possible combat.

Puckett has 33 people under his command, and he said his group is ready for whatever mission they are given.

“There’s always fear there, but I have to put my fear to the side to make sure they’re straight,” Puckett said.

Staff Sgt. James Lanier, a 44-year-old Wilson County sheriff’s deputy, said he and the other guard members are “pretty upbeat.”

“We’ve got the game face on, preparing for deployment. We’re trying to keep the morale and motivation high – just standing by, basically waiting for the word,” Lanier said.

One soldier told Bredesen he was worried about his family’s income while he was deployed. He asked if the governor could do anything to ensure private companies paid economic differentials to deployed workers like the state was doing for its employees.

The governor signed an executive order in February that requires government agencies and departments to extend military leave and provide offsetting pay to state employees whose active-duty wages are less than their normal salary.

For example, if an employee normally earning $2,619 a month – the average government salary – is called to serve and makes only $2,100 a month on active duty, the state will pay the $519 balance each month. The benefit is capped at $1,000 a month.

The governor said he was encouraging private employers to follow the state’s lead.

“I certainly don’t think that somebody, in addition to putting themselves in harm’s way, in the way that you are, ought to have to take an economic hit, too,” Bredesen said.

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