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Hartford — The Connecticut National Guard is sending a unit to Bahrain for the first time.
Before family and friends gathered at the William A. O'Neill Armory Tuesday, the Guard held a send-off ceremony for 120 soldiers of the 248th Engineer Company of Norwich and 140 soldiers of the 143rd Military Police Company of West Hartford.
The engineers are going to Bahrain, while the military police are deploying to Afghanistan, which will bring the total number of Connecticut guardsmen overseas to 550.
"We mark these occasions because they are in fact special occasions, when our very best and very brightest and our very best prepared respond to duty's call," said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who presented the state flag to the units to fly overseas.
Bahrain is "not a country you typically think of the Army being involved in," said First Lt. Keith Parent, who commands the engineer company. "But when I found out what we were doing, it's right in line with our typical missions."
The company specializes in building roads, but Parent said the soldiers have prepared for a range of responsibilities, from upgrading structures to providing security. While there has been political unrest recently in the Gulf Arab state, he said he does not expect the company to get involved.
The average age of the soldiers is about 22, said Parent, 26, of Enfield.
"We really want to go out and do what we trained for," he said.
Private First Class Theodore Wetherby, 26, of Ledyard, said, "This is what we signed up for."
Wetherby, who is deploying for the first time, said that in Bahrain, "We'll get to learn some new things, do our tasking and get home safe."
For the past decade, Guard units have been sent to Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan, said Col. John Whitford, Guard spokesman. But, he said, units have deployed to locations around the world in the past, wherever their expertise or assistance was needed.
Units are scheduled to deploy through 2013, Whitford said in an interview. What impact the reduction of troops will have beyond that "remains to be seen," he added.
"After more than 10 years of war, responding to our nation's call is not new to members of the Connecticut National Guard," Maj. Gen. Thaddeus J. Martin, commander of the state's National Guard, said during the ceremony.
Martin called the soldiers in formation before him "great American patriots, the pride and joy of the Connecticut National Guard."
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., then told the soldiers, "You're the nation's pride and joy, and we thank you."
The units will spend about a year overseas. Both units deployed to Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
The military police will work alongside the Afghan Uniformed Police to ensure law and order and gather intelligence. Capt. James Locke of Manchester commands the company.
"It will be exciting. It's something to experience at such a young age," said Private Second Class Stephen Losty, 19, of Waterford, a member of the military police company.
The number of Connecticut guardsmen deployed overseas will climb to about 800 by the end of the year. Two units will return next month, but a larger group from the 1048th Transportation Company in Stratford is headed to Afghanistan.
Private First Class Nicole Tuttle, 21, of Lebanon is leaving with the engineer company while her older brother will deploy with the transportation company. Tuttle's two brothers and sister-in-law are in the National Guard.
"I'm OK with it," she said of going overseas. "But I feel bad for my parents."
Sgt. Randy Atkinson, 36, of Groton, of the engineer company, said he felt anxious about deploying, and that he appreciated the send-off ceremony.
"It shows that the individuals who are making the decisions are out here in support of us," he said.