Specialist Orli Benitez of West New York, NJ, hugs his...

Specialist Orli Benitez of West New York, NJ, hugs his mother Louise with his girlfriend Genesis Gapata standing by, before leaving with the 310 Military Police Brigade for deploy to Afghanistan from the US Army Reserve Center in Farmingdale. (Jan. 5, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The sound of muffled sobs competed with the diesel groan of motor coaches idling outside the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Farmingdale.

The 140 green-garbed soldiers climbed aboard the coaches. The doors hissed shut. One by one, the buses pulled away in the chilly morning breeze.

"Let's pray for them," said Bernadette Johnston, of Rocky Point, whose soldier son, Army Spc. Justin Hoffman, was one of those aboard.

Thursday morning's departure of 140 soldiers from the Farmingdale-based 310th Military Police Battalion, an Army Reserve unit, serves as a reminder that, although America's combat involvement in Iraq ended on Dec. 31 and the White House has ordered a reduction of troops in Afghanistan, U.S. military personnel are still being sent into battle.

President Barack Obama has reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan by 10,000 from its mid-2011 peak of 101,000, and has ordered a further cut to 68,000 by Oct. 1. But with battle deployments typically limited to one year, the military will continue rotating fresh troops to Afghanistan for another three years, according to Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman.

Vicki Denicker, of St. James, was among several people who noted ruefully that the announced troop withdrawals have left many of their friends and neighbors believing that America's long war involvement in Afghanistan is over, even as they are saying goodbye to loved ones headed into harm's way.

"I'm frustrated," said Denicker, whose son Spc. Christopher Denicker was among the departing soldiers. "I tell people my son is going to Afghanistan and they say, 'I thought the war was over.' "

"I'm angry," said her husband, Anthony Denicker, a Vietnam veteran. "The war is over? How come they are all being deployed?"

Although Obama has set a 2014 deadline for the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, the war there continues to take American lives. Last year, 418 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the second highest annual total of the 10-year war. At least three were from Long Island.

The 310th's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jackie Gordon, a Babylon Town councilwoman, had promised during a Wednesday deployment ceremony that all of her soldiers would return from their yearlong deployment. Asked about that promise moments before their departure the next morning, she acknowledged that death is one of war's cruel realities.

"Nothing can be guaranteed," Gordon, of Copiague, said. "But when you're prepared, the percentage of your success is far greater. I think we are prepared."

Spc. Chade Parker, 40, was among those who left for the Afghanistan deployment Thursday. The Briarwood, Queens, resident had enlisted in the Army Reserve to boost his income and help provide for his family. "It's the driving force for why I joined," he said.

On Thursday, Parker blew a kiss to his pregnant wife and headed for the bus, then turned back for a last embrace. Parker's teenage son punched him gently in the chest, then hugged and kissed him.

"I let him know, 'You're the head male now, respect your mother,' " Parker said, recalling a brief conversation with his son. "And that I plan to be back home."

He paused. "This is hard. Very emotional."

Two buses behind Parker's, Christopher Denicker's family was saying goodbye to their soldier. And Denicker, 24, was saying goodbye to his toddler son, Christian, age 16 months.

Denicker, who is studying law enforcement at Suffolk County Community College, said his life until recently had been the mostly carefree one of a student and part-time soldier. But as a young father, Denicker's deployment will force him to miss a year of his son's life.

"Now that I am a father, this is going to be hard," Denicker said.

Moments before boarding the bus, he held his son in his arms. He pulled the child's hood snugly about his head, handed him to members of his family, then climbed aboard. "Take care of my boy," he said.

The last green-garbed troops scrambled to their seats. The diesel engines roared to life.

Her eyes already red, Hoffman's girlfriend, Sandra Fioretti, 23, began to sob. The two have been together eight years, since she was in 10th grade.

They spent their last night together telling each other of their love "and that we're not saying goodbye, that we'll see each other later."

In the parking lot, shivering in a thin sweatshirt, Fioretti searched for a glimpse of Hoffman's face in the darkened windows of the departing vehicles. The string of buses exited the parking lot, turned left and were gone.

Fioretti, Johnston and two of Fioretti's friends waved brave goodbyes, then huddled together in tears.

"They're going to be OK, and we'll all be together," Johnston said to the other women -- the wife of one soldier and girlfriends of two others. "We're going to see them in a couple of months."

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