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Groton — Military and civilian dignitaries gave a heroes' send-off Saturday to about 100 Connecticut National Guard soldiers who will be deploying to Afghanistan to perform aircraft maintenance and to five members of two military working dog units that are headed to Qatar.
Members of the Patriot Guard stood at attention with their flags inside the Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group (TASMG) hangar at the Groton-New London Airport as national, state and local officials wished the men and women good luck and told them how much they are appreciated.
Soldiers posed in front of a Black Hawk helicopter as their family members snapped pictures with their cellphones.
"After more than 10 years of war, responding to our nation's call is not new to members of the Connecticut National Guard," said Maj. Gen. Thaddeus J. Martin, commander of the state National Guard.
The deployment begins within a few weeks and could last up to 400 days.
The 100 men and women from the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group of Groton are headed to Afghanistan to conduct field maintenance, depot-level aviation repairs and launch aircraft maintenance contact teams and test pilots. This is the group's third deployment.
Maj. Raymond Chicoski of Colchester, a Black Hawk pilot who will be testing helicopters that are repaired after hard landings or crashes, said the group has outstanding technical capabilities and is equipped like few others. Leaving home is tough, he said, but the National Guard does an excellent job of preparing families.
"After the second deployment, my wife has very little anxiety," Chicoski said.
Sharon Muthig of Cheshire, wife of Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Muthig, said her husband, a 56-year-old pilot on his third deployment, would not be happy if he wasn't doing his duty. She said help for National Guard families is available, but at this point she has her own personal support system.
"It's easy for me," she said. 'I continue with my life. I go to work every day, eat dinner. You do what you have to do."
Five soldiers from the 928th Military Police Kennel Master Military Working Dog Team and the 11th Military Police Explosive Military Working Dog Team are headed to Qatar with German shepherds Darko, Jury and Dino. The Kennel Master group will provide technical supervision while the Explosive group will provide security, prisoner-of-war operations and law-and-order operations.
Sgt. 1st Class Jimmie Smith of Bristol, the group's leader, said Connecticut is the first National Guard unit to have an operational military dog kennel and deploy to the theater.
"My biggest thought is to make sure my soldiers are safe," Smith said.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told family members he knew how it felt to have a loved one go to war. His oldest son Matthew, a lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, was deployed to Afghanistan last year.
Blumenthal told the soldiers that upon their return, the country must "leave no veteran behind," providing the benefits and services they have earned.
"Never in the history of this nation have so few men and women borne the burden of battle for so long," Blumenthal said. "You deserve a place in our history."
The Connecticut National Guard currently has more than 200 soldiers and Airmen serving overseas in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. More than 500 guardsmen from four different units are preparing for deployment by the end of the year.