By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The war in Iraq was made very real to U.S. Rep. Rob Portman when he walked among wounded American soldiers and Marines at a U.S. Army hospital in Germany last week.
"It was a very moving experience,'' the Terrace Park Republican said of his visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the hospital near Ramstein Air Base where American wounded and former prisoners of war have been transported and treated in the weeks since Operation Iraqi Freedom began.
"To walk among guys who have been shot up and who will carry this with them the rest of their lives and talk with them was an experience I'll never forget,'' said Portman.
Portman was one of six House members invited by Speaker Dennis Hastert to accompany him on a week-long trip that Portman described as a congressional "thank you'' to the troops who fought in Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
The congressmen visited the wounded at Landstuhl, spent time on board the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean and stopped in at the Royal Air Force's Fairford Air Base in Great Britain, the launching point for American B-52 bombing runs over Iraq.
At Landstuhl, Portman talked to a young Marine from Tacoma, Wash., who had a rocket-propelled grenade explode near his head during a firefight with Iraqi irregulars in southern Iraq. Portman brought Graeter's ice cream and candy, and he carried letters written by children at Terrace Park Elementary School that he passed out to the Marine and others recovering from their wounds.
"Right now, you are saving the lives of thousands of people,'' wrote 12-year-old Nick Weaver in one of the letters. "I understand it is hard to be away from your families and know they are worrying about you. Everyone back home is proud of you, troops, and is thankful to every extent.''
The soldiers and Marines, Portman said, "got a big kick out of the kids' letters.''
At Fairford, Portman met Airman 1st Class Adam Craig, a 22-year-old from Anderson Township who is serving as a B-52 crew chief, loading ordnance on the bomber.
"You cannot help but be impressed by the young people serving over there,'' said Portman. "Adam was a good example. He is very young, but very competent at what he does and very professional. It is because we had that kind of young people that this war was so successful and took so little time.''
The congressional delegation's aircraft landed on the flight deck of the Harry S. Truman, a carrier that was heavily involved in the Iraq air campaign and is now headed home.
Landing on an aircraft carrier, Portman said, "is like the best ride at Kings Island.''
During the week-long trip, Hastert, Portman and the other congressmen had several briefings on the situation in Iraq.
Portman, generally considered to be the House member with the closest ties to the Bush administration, said he is convinced that the United States will have to continue a military presence in Iraq for "at least a year, maybe more'' while the political situation stabilizes and a government "run by Iraqis for Iraqis'' can be created.
Whether on board the USS Harry Truman or at the military hospital in Landstuhl, Portman said he was most impressed by the morale of the American men and women he met. "Every single person we met was upbeat,'' Portman said. "America has some remarkable young people over there.''
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