Gov. Jan Brewer, in her first trip to Afghanistan, said the war in real life is “unimaginable.''
“As we sit over there on the mainland and see and hear everything going on, it's really different over here,'' said Brewer in a phone interview Wednesday from the war zone. It was Brewer's first trip there, organized by the Department of Defense, to meet with military leaders and soldiers.
Brewer, who was briefed ahead of time by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said she came to no conclusions in the ongoing debate about how quickly U.S. troops should be withdrawn from the country.
The administration has said it intends to have all combat troops gone by the end of 2014, though an undetermined number of soldiers will remain to work with the Afghan military. But even Panetta said at a press conference last week that there also will be a continuing need to combat terrorism, what with continued al-Qaida strength in the country.
That did not stop the Senate, as part of a defense bill, from tacking on a non-binding resolution urging faster withdrawal.
Brewer said she is deferring to the decisions of military leaders.
“Whatever their judgment is, is something I would have no reservations with,'' the governor said, saying she's “not a warrior, if you will, or someone that understands all the implications of everything.''
The governor conceded that before she went overseas she was of the opinion that the planned withdrawal was too early.
“Today I don't feel that way,'' she said.
“I feel very, very confident that they are doing what they believe is right,'' Brewer explained. “And they are doing it the right way.''
Brewer said what surprised her was how different reality is than the war as seen on TV.
“It was a little bit surreal of course,'' she said of landing in the middle of the conflict.
“It's the real deal,'' the governor continued. “It's not make-believe.''
Brewer said she was impressed.
“You tend to forget that everybody's carrying real guns and they're putting their life on the line,'' she said. The governor said it's one thing to know that, intellectually.
“But if you actually see it, it's very, very different,'' she said.
Amid all that, Brewer said she had not focused on the potential danger to herself of being in a war zone.
“I'm so happy and so honored to come, I don't think the reality set in with me until I got there,'' she said.
“Then I realized it was the real deal,'' Brewer continued. “We're flying helicopters, we have guns hanging out the windows.''
Then there are the barriers and being constantly surrounded by soldiers assigned to protect her.
“You know then it's very, very serious,'' she said.
The governor said she would not describe her feeling as being afraid, saying she has confidence in the soldiers.
“But yes,'' she said, knowing that people around her were putting themselves in harm's way. And that, she said, made her aware of the risks. “I followed the rules, I did what I was told.''
Brewer's trip had been off the record following general Department of Defense policy to not publicize ahead of time, for security reasons, when dignitaries visit war zones. While she did a phone interview Wednesday while still in Afghanistan, news stories about her location were embargoed until 4 a.m. Thursday, the time she was scheduled to be out of that country.
Before going overseas, Brewer made a stop at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Here, the governor said the reality of the situation differed from her prior perception.
“That is, in so many ways, so heartbreaking because so many are injured dramatically, something that we hear about, only might see on TV,'' she said.
“But to be there and to talk to them and to see their spirit is so, so encouraging that they are willing to give up what they have given up,'' Brewer continued. “And then to come back and be strong and be faithful still to us.''
Brewer said she was impressed by the kind of equipment available to treat and rehabilitate the injured soldiers.
She even got a chance to spend some time with Army combat medic Mason Steill, the grandson of a Maricopa County employee, who was wounded in Afghanistan. All that, Brewer said, left an impression.
“You know, what a price they have paid, what a price America has paid,'' she said. “We have suffered great casualties and great injuries and must never, ever, in my opinion, ever forget it.''