By Col. Michael Negard / TRADOC News ServiceMarch 24, 2009
MANHATTAN, NY -- It was only fitting that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, an Irishman through and through, welcomed back from Afghanistan 319 Soldiers from the famed New York National Guard's Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment on St. Patrick's Day in New York City.
The regiment, original owner of the "Fighting Irish" nickname, began its day as it has since 1868 by leading the city's St. Patrick's Day parade. More than 1,100 of the regiment's Soldiers led the event's largest contingent in history as it made its way along 5th Avenue in Manhattan and finished by marching into the historic 26th Street Armory to the cheers of family members and well-wishers.
"I grew up across the river in Bayonne, grandson of Irish immigrants on both sides," Dempsey said. "Almost 35 years ago, I decided on a career in the Army and my image of what 'right' looked like was Pat O'Brien as Father Duffy and Jimmy Cagney as Pvt. Jerry Plunkett."
He was referring to the Hollywood movie entitled The Fighting 69th in which O'Brien played Father Francis Patrick Duffy. Father Duffy was a lieutenant and the 69th's chaplain during the Spanish-American War of 1898 when the 69th was federalized. Duffy was also with the 69th when it was federalized again during World War I and re-designated the 165th U.S. Infantry Regiment. When the unit moved up to the front in France, Duffy accompanied the litter bearers in recovering the wounded and was always seen in the thick of battle. His service is memorialized today by a statue in the northern triangle of Times Square in Manhattan appropriately named Duffy Square.
Aside from the Irish heritage that surrounds the 69th, Dempsey highlighted the contributions made by the 69th that dates back to 1849 when it was created as the 9th Regiment, New York State Militia. The unit distinguished itself in more than 20 battles and campaigns from Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Antietam during the Civil War, to more recent operations in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
"My house is decorated with paintings of the Irish Brigade at Marye's Heights and at Gettysburg in the Civil War," said Dempsey. "In my office, I have a portrait of Wild Bill Donovan, who gave you the motto, 'Clear the Way,' and that's what this proud unit has done."
Dempsey also noted that the modern day 'Fighting 69th' is a diverse organization that has demonstrated what's possible when people of varried backgrounds pull together in the common cause of freedom.
"What worries our enemies is that men and women of different races, religions, and social status can come together to work toward a common purpose," said Dempsey.
The 69th and its Soldiers were recently part of Task Force Phoenix in Afghanistan, which conducted a broad-based training, mentoring, and assistance program to help strengthen the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), maintain stability of the country and help prevent the re-emergence of terrorism. It was comprised of National Guard units from more than 20 other U.S. states. Nineteen Soldiers from the Fighting 69th were killed in combat operations during its deployment.
Dr. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also highlighted the 69th's contributions to current operations overseas and abroad.
"It's fitting that we're here today, in New York City, the place where your most recent mission began and where the Fighting 69th rushed to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001," said Rice. "There is a straight line from your service at Ground Zero to your service in Afghanistan. You served on behalf of those who were murdered on 9-11. You served to protect the nation from those who would plot similar attacks in the future, and you served to build a new Afghanistan, one that will no longer be a safe haven for Al Qaeda."
Dempsey made reference to novelist and essayist Peter Quinn and his narrative about the Irish in America. Quinn noted that the only unforgiveable offense for immigrants was to be boring or colorless.
"Today, the only unforgivable offense for those of us who have reaped the benefits of this great nation is to be content, isolated, and complacent," said Dempsey. "You remember what happens when a nation becomes complacent and you've demonstrated that it will not happen again."
Dempsey closed by singing a rendition of the 69th Regiment's official march song, Garry Owen.
"Our hearts so stout have got us fame, for soon 'tis known from whence we came, where're we go they dread the name, of Garry Owen in glory."