We’d like to take a moment to express our appreciation for the Illinois National Guard troops now headed to Afghanistan.

To them we say, “Godspeed and good luck.”

And thank you.

Your unselfish commitment to our country calls for recognition and commendation from every resident of Illinois and every American.

As Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at a send-off on the South Side, one of five such events across the state over the weekend, the young men and women of the 178th Infantry Regiment do indeed represent “the very best of our state.”

Their deployment — 400 men and women in uniform — is the largest mobilization of Illinois National Guard troops in more than 10 years.

Let’s take a moment, too, to send our best wishes to the families and friends of the troops, who will undergo training in Texas before heading to Afghanistan for a year.

National Guard members are citizen soldiers, not full-time military. The mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents and spouses and children of these men and women perhaps never expected to see their loved ones march off to a war zone.

Now they’ll spend the next year hoping and praying for a safe return.

American troops are no longer engaged in official combat in Afghanistan, but the danger is still very real: Just on Monday, two U.S. troops were killed by an Afghan soldier. In late June, two other American service members were killed.

So we join with the families to await the safe return of those 400 troops. And we remember the four members of the 178th Infantry who died in the regiment’s previous deployment to Afghanistan during 2008 and 2009.

America awaits the safe return of all 14,000 U.S. service members still deployed in Afghanistan today. Our nation has spent nearly two decades at war there, and the toll has been devastating: More than 2,400 troops killed and more than 20,000 left with crippling injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And, by a United Nations estimate, more than 70,000 Afghan civilians have been killed.

The conflict drags on even as most of us here at home, cocooned from the dangers and the sorrow, all but forget.

Then 400 of our own, from the towns and cities of Illinois, join the battle.

And the praying and worrying begin anew.

Chicago Sun-Times, Tuesday