Windsor Locks — For the first time in more than a decade, all of the Connecticut National Guard units are home.
Sixty-four soldiers from the 143rd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion of Waterbury — the last unit deployed overseas — returned to Connecticut Saturday morning after nine months in Kuwait.
Maj. Gen. Thaddeus J. Martin, commander of the Connecticut National Guard, said this will be the best Christmas he has had since the conflict in Iraq began and thousands of the state's soldiers and airmen deployed over the years to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
"It's that peace of mind, knowing that everyone is out of harm's way," he said at the Army Aviation Support Facility where the soldiers arrived.
A total of about 5,000 Connecticut guardsmen have deployed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some have since retired from the Guard or moved on. Out of the current force of 5,000 people, 60 percent to 65 percent completed at least one tour.
Two soldiers and 15 airmen are still deployed on assignments with units from other states.
Lt. Col. Tom Dennis of Norwich, who commands the battalion, and his wife, Maj. Dawn Dennis, both previously served in Iraq. Dawn Dennis is not in the battalion currently, but she will become its executive officer in March. She was emotional when she tried to express what it means to have nearly everyone home, particularly so close to the holidays.
"It has been 10 years," she said. "We all think about it all the time. It is so significant, when you think about the war coming to a close. The public understands what that means. But when you are in the National Guard, you see what that means — you have all your friends and family home at one time."
The National Guard's participation in the Iraq War began in March 2003, with the deployment of the 1109th Aviation Classification Repair Activity Depot in Groton, which has since become the Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. Early on, nearly half of the state's guardsmen, about 2,100 people, were overseas at the same time.
Maj. Tom Bordner, who has served in Bosnia, Iraq and now Kuwait, said he is proud of what he has done to support operations overseas.
"I've worked with a lot of great soldiers who should be proud of what they've done," said Bordner, of Gales Ferry. "It's nice to see things coming to a close."
"We've been looking forward to this day," said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who attended the homecoming.
"We have lost some folks over the years in the battle in theater; we reflect on that frequently," he said. "On the other hand, to see all of these folks coming home today and all of the others, this is the fun part of the job."
Sixty-five members of the armed forces from Connecticut have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11.
A detachment of about 10 people will leave for Afghanistan around February, followed by a second group of about 10 people in the late spring or early summer, said Col. John Whitford, spokesman for the Connecticut National Guard. They are the only people, so far, who are planning to go.
Martin said the number of guardsmen overseas will also be low in 2015, which is a reflection of the transition out of Afghanistan.
In Kuwait, the soldiers in the support battalion ensured that other Army units had everything they needed, from food, water and fuel to maintenance and transportation support, and helped decide whether pieces of equipment should return stateside, be disposed of or transferred to another government. 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.
It's a headquarters battalion, which means it commands other subordinate units, and many of its members are more senior. Lt. Col. Dennis said the soldiers excelled at their jobs, and he "couldn't be more happy" now that everyone is home safely after about 10 months away, with the time they also spent training at Fort Hood in Texas.
Josh Sarpu said he and Sgt. Nickie Sarpu got married two months before she left for Kuwait. He said he redid their house in Gales Ferry for her, so "hopefully she'll like it." The couple planned to get a Christmas tree together after leaving the support facility. Nickie Sarpu said it was wonderful to be back.
Capt. Timothy Henderson of Waterford said he missed his job as a police officer in New London and is ready to go back.
Donna Piontkowski Ahearn of Waterford,said she was grateful to have her husband, Master Sgt. Tom Ahearn, home for the holidays, and is proud of him for "serving, for being a wonderful husband, and for just being who he is."
Holding his son, Andrew, who turns 2 next month, Tom Ahearn said he felt "complete again."
"For 10 months, pieces of me were missing," he said. "I'm all together again."
In 22 years in the military, Ahearn has served in Kuwait twice and Iraq once. He said he thought it was great that so many guardsmen are home for the holidays.
"It's very important," he said. "I spent many Christmases away, and there is nothing more important than family."