After months of transporting troops and cargo to remote outposts in the Middle East, the 103rd Airlift Wing received commendations and applause Saturday at a ceremony the Bradley Air National Guard Base.
“We want you to know the citizens of Connecticut have great respect and profound gratitude for your service to our state and to our country,” Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz told about 150 airmen who’d been deployed to Kuwait for four months.
“We are so grateful and proud of you. Thank you; welcome home; God bless each of you.”
The 103rd received the Meritorious Unit Award for its work to deliver troops and supplies from July through November, flying jumbo C-130 cargo planes between bases and far-flung outposts spanning 11 countries.
Conditions were often what the military called “austere” amid “degraded, contested environments” — which translates to flying to short dirt airstrips in deserts despite the threat of small-arms fire, anti-aircraft artillery and even surface-to-air missiles.
Keeping the planes flying despite high winds, sandstorms and temperatures of upwards of 125 degrees was part of the job, said Lt. Col. Neal Byrne, who served both as a pilot and as commander of the maintenance squadron.
Byrne, who at 39 is a 20-year veteran of the unit, said he was immensely proud of the 103rd’s performance — and grateful that everyone got home safely.
“We performed at a level that’s second to none, and everybody we deployed with came home. That’s not something you can take for granted in this business. We’re incredibly blessed to have experienced this,” Byrne said.
Major Gen. Francis Evon, adjutant general of the Connecticut National Guard, praised the pilots, mechanics, intelligence specialists, logistics workers and others for what he called an outstanding job.
“Your performance was simply exceptional,” Evon said. “Welcome home. Mission accomplished. Job well done.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney were among the dignitaries who spoke; afterward, both joining Evon and Bysiewicz in walking through each row of airmen to shake hands and offer personal thanks.
On bleachers in the unit’s massive hangar, the airmen’s families watched the ceremony alongside dozens of unit members who weren’t deployed. They all applauded as medals were awarded.
Scott Norton, a retired member of the Connecticut Air National Guard, said he has been proud all along of his son, Thomas, 21, who received the Air Force Achievement Medal on Saturday.
“He was willing to come to the service of our state and our country. It makes you immensely proud,” Scott Norton said.
Thomas Calvello, Thomas Norton’s uncle, said the entire family was joyous when his nephew returned from the deployment.
“You can’t describe the feeling when you see him walk through the front door safe and healthy,” said Calvello, a retired Bristol police captain.
Each speaker took time to thank the families who sacrificed holidays and endured months of uncertainty and worry, and Blumenthal repeated a message that he first gave at a Connecticut National Guard ceremony 20 years ago.
“When you call out the National Guard, you call out America,” he said. “When you call out the Connecticut National Guard, you call out the best in America. And it as true now — more true, in fact — as it was then. The best trained, the most able, the most dedicated of our National Guard, right here in Connecticut.”
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