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69th Infantry marks deployment and honors fallen comrades in 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Parade

By Eric Durr, New York National Guard | March 11, 2015

NEW YORK - The Soldiers of the New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion 69th Infantry will mark the tenth anniversary of the battalion’s mobilization for combat in Iraq, and salute the unit’s fallen Soldiers, as they lead New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade once again on Tuesday, March 17.

This will be the 164th time the “Fighting 69th” has led the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The 69th Infantry first led the parade in 1851.

A riderless horse to commemorate 23 Soldiers assigned or attached to the 1st Battalion 69th Infantry who died in Iraq and Afghanistan will accompany the battalion in this year’s parade.

The unit was mobilized for deployment to Iraq in the spring of 2004 and served in Baghdad in 2004/2005 and also sent Soldiers to Afghanistan in 2008 and 2012.

Nineteen Soldiers were killed in Iraq, including eight members of the Louisiana National Guard’s Company C , 2nd Battalion 156th Infantry which was assigned to the New York Battalion and four lost their life in Afghanistan.

A horse without a rider, with boots reversed in the saddle’s stirrups,traditionally signifies a fallen warrior. The horse is being provided for the parade by the Military District of Washington, said Lt. Col. Sean Flynn, the battalion’s commander.

“This parade is significant because it is the tenth anniversary of the mobilization and because of the end of the formal combat mission in Afghanistan,” Flynn said.

“These occasions are important not only because it gives us the opportunity to remember the Soldiers and families who have given so much, but to leverage the experience we have gained to make our battalion better,” he added.

The New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee is also honoring the Soldiers of the 69th Infantry by dedicating this year’s parade to the battalion’s Gold Star families.

Eleven family members, representing six of the 69th Soldiers killed in action, will participate in the activities which traditionally follow the parade at the Lexington Avenue Armory, Flynn said. The families will receive the 69th Infantry’s special long and faithful service medal—a regimental award—to recognize their sacrifice, Flynn said.

The Soldiers will march in Army Service Uniform and black berets, but one squad will march in full “battle rattle” to give parade onlookers a since of what light infantry are, Flynn said.

Veterans of the battalion will be invited to march in the parade with the Veterans Corps of the 69th, a group of former Soldiers who support the battalion’s activities.

The 42nd Infantry Division Band will also participate in the parade along with Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, the adjutant general of New York, and other New York National Guard leaders.

The 69th Infantry’s association with the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which was first held in 1762, began in 1851 when there were fears that anti-Irish groups might attack marchers.

New York City’s Irish Catholic population was rapidly increasing, but so-called “Native American” groups opposed the Irish presence and were not above using violence to break up Irish events.

To protect the marchers, a New York State Militia regiment composed mainly of Irishmen, the ancestor of the 69th, volunteered to march at the front of the group to protect the parade.

Since then, there has always been a 69th Regimental presence in the parade. During World Wars I and II, which the 69th served in Europe and the Pacific respectively, and again during Operation Iraqi Freedom, members of the unit’s Veterans Corps marched in the parade in place of the serving National Guard Soldiers.

A host of traditions surrounds the 69th and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The members of the 69th place a sprig of boxwood on their uniform as a reminder of the regiment’s charge against Confederate lines at Mayre’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg, on Dec. 13, 1862.

To mark their Irish Heritage, the men of the Irish Brigade, including the 69th Regiment, put sprigs of green boxwood in their hatbands that day. The Union attack failed, but the burial details found that the Union troops who made it closest to the enemy fortifications before being killed had sprigs of boxwood in their hats.

It was the fearlessness of the Soldiers at Fredericksburg that reportedly led to their nickname, coined by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee: “the Fighting 69th.”

“Never were men so brave. They ennobled their race by their gallantry on that desperate occasion. Though totally routed, they reaped harvests of glory. Their brilliant, though hopeless, assaults on our lines excited the hearty applause of our officers and men,” Lee reportedly said later about the Army of the Potomac’s New York Irish Brigade, which included the 69th.

Officers of the 69th also carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland. The sticks, much like a British officer’s swagger stick, are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman.

The Soldiers are accompanied on their march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th Infantry. For the last 25 years, the dogs have been provided by Irish Wolfhound breeder Eileen Flanagan.

For the officers of the 69th, the day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a toast of Irish whiskey in the commander’s office of the Lexington Avenue Armory, a room lined with 69th relics dating back to the Civil War. The traditions of the boxwood and the blackthorn sticks are explained to the new officers, along with a look at the “Kilmer Crucifix.”

The religious icon was once worn by poet Joyce Kilmer -- the author of the poem “Trees” -- who died while serving in the 69th in World War I. Today it is handed down from battalion commander to battalion commander and carried in the parade.

Kilmer was a friend of Col William Donovan, who received a Medal of Honor for his heroism in leading the 69th in battle. In World War II “Wild Bill” Donovan organized the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.

The 69th’s Chaplain during World War I, Father Francis P. Duffy, was honored after his death in 1932 with a statue of him in uniform in New York City’s Times Square.

A 1940 movie “The Fighting 69th” tells the story of the regiment during World War I.

At 6:30 a.m., the regiment’s honorary bagpiper Joe Brady leads the men out of the Lexington Avenue Armory and over to 51st Street for a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Soldiers occupy the southern half of the church as the place of honor. The battalion commander traditionally joins the adjutant general of New York, the governor of New York and mayor of New York City in a front pew for the service and the blessing for the regiment’s Soldiers.

Following mass, the battalion marches to 44th Street and 5th Avenue, the official start of the parade.

When the 11 a.m. start time for the parade arrives, a member of the Parade Committee will approach Flynn and ask him the traditional question: “Is the 69th ready?”

At that point Flynn and his Soldiers will shout back “The 69th is always ready!” and step off on the parade route north up Fifth Avenue.

At the end of the parade route, the Soldiers take a special subway train south to the station at 28th Street and march back to their armory.

Once at the armory, the unit’s officers line the front steps to honor their men as they pass by.

St. Patrick’s Day is the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry’s unit day and the history of the unit and the accomplishments of its Citizen-Soldiers are celebrated, along with awards and honors for the battalion’s Soldiers of the year.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is an honorary member of the regiment and has attended St. Patrick’s Day events. One time he led the Soldiers in singing “The Fighting 69th” a song commemorating the unit’s Civil War history.