Hartford — With the war in Afghanistan winding down, the Connecticut National Guard held a send-off ceremony Tuesday for the last unit scheduled to deploy this year.
"After nearly 12 years of war, responding to our nation's call is not new for members of the Connecticut National Guard. In fact, it's not new for many of the soldiers standing before you here this evening," Maj. Gen. Thaddeus J. Martin, commander of the Connecticut Guard, said at the ceremony at the William A. O'Neill Armory.
The 143rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion is the last state Guard unit programmed to deploy for the rest of the year, Martin said. Six units with a total of 550 soldiers are expected to return home to Connecticut between April and October.
But nearly 200 soldiers from another four units will deploy in the first half of next year, he said.
"It's winding down, but it's not done," Martin said in an interview. "So we'll continue to do what we have to do to support national objectives and at the same time, we'll continue to do what we have to do to support the communities and citizens of Connecticut anytime we're called on."
About 68,000 U.S. troops continue to serve in Afghanistan. The number of troops that will maintain a presence there beyond 2014 has not yet been determined.
The 65 soldiers in the support battalion are headed to Kuwait, where they will provide personnel, operational and logistical support to other units. But it is possible some of them will go into Afghanistan, said Norwich native Lt. Col. Tom Dennis, who commands the battalion.
Their deployment brings the total number of Connecticut guardsmen overseas to about 650. Most are in Afghanistan. The 248th Engineer Co. of Norwich is in Bahrain.
The Guard had well over 1,000 people deployed from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2008 to 2009. Of the current force of 5,000, two-thirds have deployed at least once in support of the war efforts.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., thanked battalion members for their service. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told them, "We love you and honor you and care for you, and we expect and pray for your safe return."
Dennis, 42, said the unit, based in Waterbury, has been anticipating this deployment for a year now. He served seven years on active duty before joining the Guard in 1999.
"We need to get going," he said in an interview. "The sooner we do, the sooner we'll get home."
Their job is to ensure that other Army units have everything they need, from food, water and fuel to maintenance and transportation support, Dennis said. It's a headquarters battalion, which means it commands other subordinate units, and many of its members are more senior.
In 2006, the battalion commanded more than 1,000 National Guard, active and reserve soldiers in Iraq. The battalion was also in Bosnia in 2001.
Some of the soldiers have been in the military for more than 30 years and are nearly 60 years old, Dennis said. Others are fairly new to the Guard. Several have ties to southeastern Connecticut.
Dennis, who was with the battalion for the Iraq deployment, graduated from Norwich Free Academy in 1988. He met his wife, Maj. Dawn Dennis, when each was serving in the engineer company in Norwich. His children, Tommy, Callie and Chris, go to school in Griswold.
The battalion's executive officer, Maj. Jeff Connelly, lives in Groton, and the support operations officer, Maj. Tom Bordner, lives in Gales Ferry. One of the sergeants, Nickie Sarpu, also lives in Gales Ferry.
"I'm a little anxious and a little nervous," said Sarpu, 31, who has served for five years and is deploying for the first time. "But I think it will be a very good experience for me."
The soldiers now head to Fort Hood in Texas for a month of training, then on to Kuwait for nine months.
Connelly, 42, who has served in the Guard for 25 years, said that after all of the training, he's looking forward to performing the mission.
"We're a well-trained group," said Bordner, 44, who has served in the Guard for 19 years. "It's a good bunch of people who I'm proud to serve with. I think we'll do a good job."