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Bill Dow of Fremont, right, a retired Guardsman, greets 1st Sgt. Michael Lestage of Manchester as the soldiers of the 197th Field Artillery Brigade and Battery E file in for a welcome-home ceremony at the Pease Air National Guard Base in Newington on Sunday. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)

Returning NH units aided battle against ISIS


NEWINGTON — Though most of the soldiers seated in Hangar 254 at Pease Air National Guard Base returned to New Hampshire weeks ago, their year-long mission to the Middle East didn’t officially end until their commander sent them home late Sunday afternoon.

“This was a team effort,” said Col. John Leblanc, commander of the 197th Field Artillery Brigade. “From the start I knew we had something special. When historians look back on, and write about the campaign to defeat ISIL, I know that the 197th will have a prominent place on those pages of history and your legacy — our legacy — will live on forever. God bless us all.”

An official welcome-home ceremony, featuring members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation and Gov. Chris Sununu, was held in Hangar 254 of the Pease Air National Guard Base Sunday for 93 members of two groups recently returned from a year-long deployment to the Middle East: 73 members of Headquarters Battery, 197th Field Artillery Brigade, and 20 members of Echo Battery, 197th Field Artillery Regiment.

The soldiers were deployed for Operations Spartan Shield and Inherent Resolve, according to Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, state public affairs officer for the Guard. The 197th Field Artillery Brigade provided long-range artillery support to Iraqi troops battling ISIS, Heilshorn said.

“They were deployed to the Middle East for the better part of a year in several countries including Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates,” said Heilshorn. “They were supporting targeting missions in the war against ISIS in Syria.”

During Sunday’s ceremony, Gov. Sununu thanked all involved with the mission.

“You set the bar of service for others to follow and it won’t be easy,” said Sununu. “You are really setting a new standard in terms of what you represent and what you do. The sacrifice the families have to make as well — sometimes we forget what they go through, not just for a few weeks or just a few months, but for a full year.”

Diane Lestage of Manchester, wife of 1st Sgt. Michael Lestage of the 197th Field Artillery Brigade, said she was glad to have her husband home.

“It makes life a little easier,” said Lestage. “We have a teenager who learned to drive while he was gone. She plays some sports, so we keep busy, send packages — and don’t listen to the news a lot.”

Michael Lestage said this was his third deployment to the Middle East, and the second with the 197th.

“It was a lot easier this time,” said Lestage. “I got to travel and see a good part of the Middle East in a different environment, not always wearing a uniform.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, also thanked the returnees and their families.

“I understand that this year we had two new babies born while you were deployed,” Shaheen said. “The fact that you were not there for the birth of your kids speaks to the sacrifice that we ask all of you to make for so many of you. You’ve seen multiple deployments since Sept. 11.”

“Thank you for your dedication, your bravery and sacrifice,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH. “Because of your efforts, our country is safer. You have served your state with honor and dedication. I want to give a special thank you to the children here. Thank you for sharing your parents with us. The families of the New Hampshire National Guard have a strong tradition of taking care of themselves and each other.”

“It’s wonderful to hear about the professionalism you display,” said Rep. Annie McLane Kuster, D-NH. “It gives us tremendous pride in New Hampshire. These are challenging times. You bravely served to protect your fellow soldiers and American citizens.”

Heilshorn said the ceremony was held Sunday, weeks after some soldiers returned to New Hampshire, because not all members of the 197th arrived home at the same time.

“This is a chance for them all to get together,” he said. “Their mission is complete.”

pfeely@unionleader.com


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