Back From Iraq:
New York’s Fighting 69th and Louisiana’s Tiger Brigade Celebrates Homecoming
By Marian Betancourt, Contributor
June / July 2006
The 245th New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade was dedicated to the Fighting 69th and Louisiana’s 256th National Guard, Tiger Brigade, which, serving together as Taskforce Wolfhound, lost 19 soldiers in combat in Iraq.
During the American Civil War the Fighting 69th and the Tiger Brigade were mortal enemies. In Iraq, they fought together, and some died side by side.
“Taskforce Wolfhound,” which combined New York and Louisiana National Guard units, trained together at Fort Hood, Texas, before going to Iraq in October, 2004 under the command of the First Cavalry.
Based inside the Sunni Triangle, the unit was charged with safeguarding the checkpoints along the dangerous road to Baghdad airport, which they renamed Route Irish.
On January 6, 2005, just outside the village of Awad Al-Hussein, six soldiers from Louisiana and one from New York, riding in the same military vehicle, died after a roadside bomb detonated.
In all, eleven men of the 69th and eight soldiers from the 256th lost their lives during Taskforce Wolfhound’s year-long tour of duty. Fifty more were wounded.
Still mourning their lost brethren, the units returned home last September – the 69th to New York and the Tiger Brigade to Louisiana, where the Southern soldiers faced the enormity of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in their absence. Many lost homes and family members.
Their Northern comrades rallied to help. Vic Olney, a former staff sergeant with the 69th and business manager of the Officers Association and the Garryowen Club, helped manage funds for Katrina relief as well as financial aid for families of the soldiers killed in Iraq.
Just four years earlier Louisiana, a state heavily populated by Irish since Famine immigrants made their way there in the 1800s, had donated a fire pumper, “Spirit of Louisiana,” to the City of New York in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New York City firefighters drove the same truck down to New Orleans to help with the relief effort.
The Ancient Order of Hibernians, longtime friends of the Fighting 69th also raised funds to help with the relief effort, and in recognition of Taskforce Wolfhound’s incredible sacrifice in Iraq, this year’s New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade was dedicated to the unit.
On March 17, four hundred members of the Fighting 69th, and the Tiger Brigade led the parade up Fifth Avenue, accompanied by their official Irish wolfhound mascots, Garryowen and Glory.
The Fighting 69th Infantry, now a National Guard unit, has been the parade’s official escort since 1850 when it was created as the 69th New York militia. The regiment has served at home and overseas. It was part of the famed Irish Brigade during the American Civil War, and has served in World War I, World War II and in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The regiment’s motto, from the Civil War era, is “Faugh a Ballagh,” which is Irish for “Clear the Way.”
It was the Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee who first called the regiment “The Fighting 69th” as they squared off with units from the Confederacy on battlefields throughout the Civil War. No soldiers provided stouter resistance than those from Louisiana, where New Orleans was second to New York as a port of entry for Famine Irish immigrants. This shared history came full circle in Iraq.
Today the Fighting 69th includes people of all ethnic groups, but many of its traditions and symbols derive from a time when the regiment was made up entirely of Irish-Americans.
Shamrocks adorn its tanks and Humvees, and Captain Sean Michael Flynn, 33, recounted how his lieutenant played the “Garryowen” on the pipes before their patrols in Iraq. (This rollicking drinking tune is also the song of the Seventh Cavalry, which originally included many veterans of the Irish Brigade who joined General George Armstrong Custer’s newly formed cavalry in the West.)
Captain Flynn’s ancestors were in the original Irish Brigade that served in the Civil War. His great-grandfather and four brothers all fought for the unit in the Union Army, and many of his relatives since have served in the brigade.
However, the closest that Flynn came to visiting his ancestral roots in Ireland was a stopover at Shannon Airport on his way home from Iraq.
“We stopped for refueling and convinced the pilot that he should invent some technical difficulties so we could visit the airport pub,” Flynn quipped.
The “Garryowen” was played during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and again as regimental piper Joe Brady led the guests of honor into the post-parade ceremonies at the Fighting 69th Regiment Armory, where Captain Flynn served as master of ceremonies.
Fallen comrades were remembered and presentations were made to their families. Seven bronze stars and three purple hearts were awarded to members of the Fighting 69th.
Major General Joseph Taluto, recently appointed Adjutant General of New York State, who served in Tikrit, Iraq with Headquarters 42nd Infantry Division, and Colonel Geoffrey Slack, who commanded Taskforce Wolfhound, were both on hand to see the 69th’s twenty-fourth battle streamer added to the regiment’s colors in official recognition of its wartime service in Iraq. (Each time the 69th is involved in battle a streamer is added to its colors).
Louisianans General Russel Honore, commander of First U.S. Army, and General Basilia, commander of the Tiger Brigade, were also on hand. Captain Flynn recalled how during their tour of duty in Iraq, General Basilia used to joke that if the 69th were looking for their missing colors, they should go to Louisiana.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) joined in the ceremony and addressed the soldiers, their families and guests.
The Irish Brigade was known as the most convivial camp in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Officers and recruits from other units wangled invitations into their camp where there was plenty of Irish whiskey and beer, card games and horse and donkey races. That heritage has continued.
A great cheer went up when the Louisiana soldiers, known as “Black Sheep,” were made honorary members of the 69th Regiment, and when the ceremonies ended, the speeches were over and the awards presented, a large batch of the Fighting 69th’s regimental cocktail was prepared and the Operation “Homecoming” Celebration began in earnest. ♦