TROY, N.Y. - In May 2004 New York Army National Guard Major Michel Natali--a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division--was a New York State Trooper and deputy intelligence officer of the 42nd Infantry Division.

The Soldiers in the 42nd's headquarters were preparing to deploy to Iraq and provide command and control for 20,000+ troops, something no Guard division had done since 1952.

Fifteen years later, Brigadier General Michel Natali is the commander of the New York National Guard's 53rd Troop Command, and the full-time Assistant Adjutant General responsible for overseeing the 10,000 members of the New York Army National Guard. The job means busy schedules and a lot of time on the road.

But Natali still makes time for an informal lunch gathering that Soldiers who deployed with him have been holding every few months for the past several years.

"I do it to stay in touch with guys who have left our ranks and who I don't get to see very often and it gives us time just to catch up," Natali said. "It is always good to hear the same stories from people but told from a different perspective so it always sparks a new memory that maybe you didn't pick up on the first time you heard the story."

The 42nd Infantry Division's headquarters; intelligence, military police, aviation brigade headquarters, division logistics elements, and combat engineer elements -- about 2,000 Soldiers coming from the New York and New Jersey National Guards--mobilized in May of 2004 for deployment to Iraq.

The plan called for five months of training at Fort Drum, New York and Fort Dix, New Jersey.

Four hundred Soldiers came from the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters in Troy.

They made up the personnel, intelligence, operations, planning, and logistics staff officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted personnel responsible for helping a two-star general run a four-brigade task force--dubbed Task Force Liberty-- spread across an area the size of West Virginia.

Some Soldiers had been in the headquarters for years while others volunteered or were transferred from other units.

The headquarters trained at Fort Drum, New York in the summer and fall of 2004. They deployed to Iraq in 2005, took over from the 1st Infantry Division in February and turned over operations to the 101st Air Assault Division in November, immediately following the Iraqi Constitutional Referendum vote.

Major Al Thiem, a UH-60 pilot turned armor officer then turned division aviation staff officer was one of those 400. Thiem manned the aviation operations desk in the division main command post located in Sadam Hussain's big palace compound in Tikrit, high above the Tigris River.

These days, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Al Thiem is the guy who organizes the informal lunchtime reunions.

The reunion lunches began about 2010 (or maybe it was 2012, nobody really knows) when retired Lt. Col. Mike Kelley and retired Major Patrick Chaisson--both veterans of the Iraq deployment--were visiting the division headquarters. They were there to make decisions on awarding scholarships from the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation.

Lt. Col. John Andonie, the division operations officer and another veteran of Iraq-- and now Brig. Gen. John Andonie and Director of the Joint Staff for the New York National Guard-- suggested they go out to lunch with other members of the division staff who had served in Iraq.

So they rounded up whoever they could find and went to a local restaurant. Thiem began making an e-mail list and reached out to that original group and had more people a few months later.

Every six or seven months, Thiem would send out an open-ended invite to his email list -- it stands at 70 people now--to show up at Moscatiello's Family Restaurant in North Greenbush, New York on a Friday afternoon, and Soldiers and former Soldiers from the deployment would show up.

Anywhere from 15 to 20+ normally attend.

Thiem was deployed to Fort Meade, Maryland for most of 2018 so there was a year-long hiatus in lunches which ended with an April 2019 gathering.

Why does he do it?

Because it's fun, Thiem explained.

"You get a core group of people who were there and you talk about the old times," he said.

Chaisson--a retired officer who writes articles for history magazines--likes the chance to reconnect with old friends.

"Our get-togethers are very informal, fun and noisy. We're either finding out what everyone else is doing nowadays or telling stories about our time in Iraq," he said.

"It's great to see those who've stayed in the Guard move up in rank. People I knew in Iraq as sergeants are now chief warrant officers, majors and even brigadier generals," he said.

Lt. Col. Paul Conte, a retired artilleryman -- who also served in the Gulf War in 1991 and now works in financial services--said he keeps going because the 42nd Infantry Division group is like a family.

"Those are significant events in people's lives and in the military, especially if you spend time with them, you want to go to these lunches because who else are you going to sit down and tell this stuff to," Conte said.

"You start putting some serious time since that stuff and that deployment it is going to become more important as you go forward," he added.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Stephanie Spanton--who in 2005 was Sgt. Stephanie Van Pelt, the "queen of the LZ" or more formally the "landing zone coordinator" at Forward Operating Base Danger--said she values the chance to relax with people who have a shared experience.

"It is the stories that you don't tell everyone. The ones that only people who were there get to hear and remember with you," she said. "It's laughing about the dumb stuff, boasting the accomplishments and the quiet moments we wished had gone better."

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tim Schultz, an intelligence analyst and the senior intelligence advisor during the 2005 deployment, said he values the chance to break away from the daily grind and "slow things down for 60-90 minutes and have lunch with the team."

"It allows reflection," Schultz said. "Sometimes we bottle things up inside and it creates anxiety and perhaps by talking and sharing during this lunchtime it helps," he added.

"I like catching up with the folks we deployed within this relaxed setting where all seem to be genuinely happy to just see one another again," said Col. Robert Epp, who is now the deputy commander of the New York Counterdrug Task Force.

"If shared misery builds the strongest bonds, then maybe that is why we still find the time to share some pasta a few times a year," he added.
His goal, Thiem said, was to always keep these lunchtime gatherings informal.

For the awards and speeches, there are the annual meetings of the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation, he said.

But after a picture of the latest lunch was posted on Facebook, he got messages from former division staff members located around the state and country lamenting that they couldn't be there too, Thiem said.

He'll try to organize something on a Saturday now so more people can come.

"But I want it to be an informal agenda. I don't want any agenda. I don't want trinkets to pass out. I just want people to be together because they want to be together," he said.