BASRAH, Iraq - Four members of the U.S. House of Representatives visited Contingency Operating Base Basrah yesterday, in the first Congressional visit to the southern Iraqi province since 2008.

Representatives Thomas Marino, R-Pa., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., met with Maj. Gen. Eddy M. Spurgin, commander of U.S. Division-South and the 36th Infantry Division, and Soldiers of the 36th Inf. Div. and 1st Cavalry Division, to discuss U.S. military forces, their local efforts with the State Department's provincial reconstruction team, and their continuing mission to advise, train, and assist Iraqi Security Forces.

"It was great to see members of Congress take an interest in what we're doing here in southern Iraq," said Spurgin, a native of Big Spring, Texas. "Our Soldiers really appreciate seeing their Congressmen in person, especially while deployed overseas and away from their families. It shows that our government cares about them and the important mission they are conducting here."

A majority of U.S. Div.-South's approximately 8,000 Soldiers are based out of Texas. The 36th Inf. Div. headquarters of the Texas Army National Guard, from Austin, commands two active-duty units from Fort Hood, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cav., and receives support from another, the 4th Sustainment Brigade. The division's area of operations includes the nine southern provinces of Iraq, home to Shi'a Islam's holiest sites in Karbala and Najaf, and the economically vital region of Basrah, which has Iraq's only deepwater port in Umm Qasr.

After having lunch with some of their constituents serving at COB Basrah, the representatives sat down with key leaders from the division staff, 3rd Bde., 1st Cav., and PRT to discuss the current state of operations in southern Iraq, which included the historic transition unfolding here as U.S. military forces draw down and prepare to transfer their responsibilities to the U.S. Embassy.

The representatives each received two Texas-themed gifts from the division headquarters: a Texas Chocolate Bar from Lammes Candies, produced in Austin since 1885, and a custom-made 36th Inf. Div. Operation New Dawn cigar, hand-rolled by Bobalu Cigar Company on 6th Street in Austin.

"It's truly been an incredible experience for me," said Marino, who represents Pennsylvania's 10th District. "We've actually been meeting with the troops, eating with them and coming out in the field with them to a certain extent has just increased my sincere and genuine respect for the military a thousand fold. We would not be the country we are today without (them)."