As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I recently participated in a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq with my colleagues Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Russ Feingold, and Hillary Clinton. The purpose of the trip was to assess the impact of recent elections, meet with the leaders of each country, discuss military and reconstruction operations, and thank our troops who have performed their dangerous missions with great courage and skill.

No matter where I went during this trip, I met Mainers – both military and civilian – proudly serving our country. The first Mainer that I met was Ryan Steeves, a Navy Seal from Standish, who is part of the force guarding Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi.

In Kuwait, I had the opportunity to meet more Mainers on Sunday night, February 20, after a long day in Iraq. While my Senate colleagues headed to the hotel, I jumped into an SUV to visit members of the 133rd Engineer Combat Battalion from Maine’s Army National Guard at Camp Victory, about an hour away. The 133rd had been based in Mosul, but 185 of its members were now in Kuwait to begin the process of finally going home. The Army assigned me the wonderful duty of delivering the good news that their planes to Fort Drum in upstate New York – their next stop on their journey back home to Maine – would be leaving in just a few more days. The 133rd sacrificed enormously – it lost three members and had another 35 who were wounded – but accomplished a great deal. The unit built schools and repaired roads, provided humanitarian relief, and saved and improved lives. The 133rd has certainly earned the Meritorious Unit Commendation award the Commanding General has recommended, and it was a memorable experience to be able to thank them for their extraordinary service.

Demonstrating that it is indeed a small world, the active duty colonel from the Second Army based in Atlanta who accompanied me that night was a University of Maine graduate, whose father was born in my hometown of Caribou. The most encouraging part of my visit to Iraq was our trip to Fallujah, a city once synonymous with danger and firmly in the insurgents’ control. Once a sanctuary for insurgents, Fallujah is now what one Marine described as the “safest city in Iraq” due to a fierce battle in which the Marines rooted out the insurgents and destroyed scores of weapons caches. This success has also encouraged more than a thousand Iraqis in the Fallujah area to have the confidence and courage to come forward to fill police and army positions.

Hearing the Marines describe the battle of Fallujah and the bravery of American and Iraqi forces made me so proud of our troops. It was an honor to be able to thank our Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen and women for their sacrifice and to have lunch with four members of our Armed Forces from Maine: Marine Lance Cpl. Nate McKim of Bowdoinham, Navy Petty Officer Bruce Davis of Gardiner, Marine First Lieutenant Tony King of Cape Elizabeth, and Navy Chief Warrant Officer Bill Bailey of Calais. Also joining us was Marine Major Dirk Maurer, a member of my staff who was called to active duty last summer and looks forward to rejoining my Washington office late this spring.

Although the successful Iraqi elections are a hopeful sign, our troops continue to contend with a violent, well-armed, and determined insurgency.

Ultimately, with the quality of our troops, the training of the Iraqi security forces, and the courage of the Iraqi people, I believe the outcome in Iraq can be a positive one – a free, peaceful, and democratic nation. But the insurgents’ goals are exactly the opposite of that, and it is going to be a long, hard struggle. Defeating a determined, ruthless, and tough enemy is going to require courage and commitment by the Iraqi people themselves as well as our determination to stay the course and learn from our mistakes.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mainers are working hard to bring a bright, peaceful future to nations with dark, violent pasts. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for their service and their sacrifice.