Fighting 69th Regiment New York On Saint Patrick’s Day

Friday, March 18, 2005

Pvt. Michael Zollo, right, is one of the relatively few members of the 69th Infantry not currently in Iraq.

Green Camouflage and Purple Hearts

By ALAN FEUER

It was a strange St. Patrick’s Day for the soldiers of the Fighting 69th.

They usually fill a city block when they muster outside for the parade. This year, they filled a fraction of a block. They usually take up several dozen pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the cardinal’s Mass. This year, they took up maybe 10.

They usually finish the parade by riding back to their armory with their M-16’s on a private subway, for a regimental cocktail. This year, the train and guns were there, but instead of drinking whiskey and Champagne, some of them drove to an Air Force base in New Jersey to retrieve the body of a comrade killed in Iraq.

"It’s adds to the – what would you call it? – the surrealness of the day," Lt. John Salazar, a company commander, said. "Picking up a body on St. Patrick’s Day." He shook his head.

The 69th Infantry – one of the oldest units in the New York National Guard – was created in 1851 and, according to legend, has missed only two St. Patrick’s Day parades in its history. For 150 years – more than half the parade’s 244-year stretch – its troops have marched up Fifth Avenue on March 17. And in most years, the private subway train has been there to take them back.

This year, however, was the first since World War II in which the unit has marched with soldiers in the field. Nearly 800 of its roughly 900 soldiers are serving in Iraq.

A plaque in the lobby of their armory, on Lexington Avenue and 26th Street, commemorates the dead.

Civil War: 388
World War I: 900
World War II: 472
Iraq: 16

Capt. Martin Ortiz thought about those 16 as he marched. Their names were in his head – a macabre poem, of sorts: Baptiste. Reardon. Engeldrum. Urbina. Fisher. Irizarry. Babin. Bergeron. Comeaux. Fassbender. Frickey. Murphy. VonRonn. Kamolvathin. Obaji. Ali.

"Each one of those guys is a name," he said, having just returned from a tour in Iraq. "But each name’s got a story."

The 69th was founded as "the Irish Brigade," but it is not wholly Irish anymore. You can still find Flynns and Kanes and O’Malleys, but more and more the dog tags read Rivera, Santiago or Singh.

The day started early, at 5 a.m. The men mustered at the armory. It was dark outside. A pair of bootblacks shined their boots.

Upstairs, the officers drank a toast of Jameson’s.

"Gentlemen, our job today is to make sure the tradition goes forward," said Capt. Raphael Santiago, the commander. "A toast to our fallen soldiers."

"Carry on!" came the answer. "May they rest in peace."

Then they fell in, stepped out in formation and made a left at 26th Street. All the way up Madison Avenue, they called out military cadence.

"Here we go again
Same old stuff again
Marching down the avenue
Five more hours and we’ll be through."

Or a little rougher:

"Yellow bird with a yellow bill
Sitting on my window sill
Lured him in with a piece of bread
Then I smashed his little head."

A pause at 51st Street, behind St. Patrick’s, waiting for the Mass to begin. The talk, however, was less about parade routes or grand marshals and more about Ramadi and roadside bombs. One private told another about a home video made in Iraq that shows a Humvee practically blowing up.

"It’s supposed to be a fun day, but when you lose guys, it’s mixed," said Sgt. William Gerke, who fought in Vietnam. "We still got a wake tonight, you know?"

Cardinal Edward Egan directed his sermon at the men. He called them "wonderful, gallant, courageous defenders of this nation." He said they were "young Americans who heard a call."

After Mass, they marched to 39th Street to pick up M-16’s and bayonets.

Except for the police horses and the sanitation men with brooms and shovels, the 69th was in the lead. The parade began and the firefighters of Ladder Company 45 applauded them. A police inspector, carrying a bullhorn, applauded them. Two drunk guys in "I’m With Stupid" T-shirts applauded them, too.

People shout, "We love you!" and "Thank you!" and "God bless the U.S.A.!" From the windows of the Pierre Hotel, a chef in whites and a toque flashes them a quick thumbs up.

The parade was done at 86th Street, and the soldiers walked in a narrow column, two by two, down the crowded street, their rifles slung across their backs. People stood aside and stared. Then clapped.

Then they headed down into the subway, waiting for the No. 6 train. It is a strange sight – loaded rifles in the station. At least they had removed their bayonets.

The dispatcher had summoned a train, but several shuddered by before they boarded. Finally, their ride arrived: a private subway train with the Irish and American flags.

"This is the one perk of the day," said Cadet Adorian Lazar. "The 69th train."

Back downtown, the detail fell in once again on 28th Street. They were marching toward the armory to celebrate with speeches and a drink.

Capt. Keith Jensen was not joining them, though. Specialist Azhar Ali died two weeks ago outside of Baghdad. Captain Jensen had the job of picking up his body.

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