NEW YORK (March 20, 2012) -- Step by step, and block by block, the Soldiers of the New York National Guard's 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, led the St. Patrick's Day Parade up Fifth Avenue, just as they have every year since 1851.
This year's parade, dedicated to "All Veterans of All Services and Branches," brought together Soldiers old and new. They marched in the shadow of New York's skyline -- 90 blocks in all.
Spc. Brendan O'Connor, a Soldier at his first parade, marched at the front, holding the banner for the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment.
Being able to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade was something the Sailorsburg, Pa., resident said he was especially proud about, due to his Irish heritage. "100 percent (Irish)," he said, beaming.
Further back in the parade marched Pfc. Liliam Sotomayer, a Soldier who previously had only been able to see the parade on television.
"It's good being able to do this," said Sotomayer, who moved to Brooklyn from Ecuador three years ago. "It's part of the culture here in New York."
For some of the more experienced Soldiers, the parade is annual institution.
Staff Sgt. Jerieme Murrell, a motor sergeant with Foxtrot Company, 427th Brigade Support Battalion, said he's lost track of how many parades he's marched in.
"It's a tradition, like a family reunion," explained Murrel, an Amityville, N.Y. resident. "Every year you go to it."
"Many people don't realize exactly how much planning goes into this parade every year," said Lt. Col. James Gonyo, the battalion commander of the 1-69th. "It involves gathering together a team of approximately 100 Soldiers who begin preparation as early as the October prior."
The 100-Soldier team is responsible for arranging everything from event parking to music, which consists of a military band and a traditional bag piper, all the while staying true to the standards and traditions the 69th Infantry has upheld for years.
"The 69th has been coordinating the St. Patrick's day parade for the past 162 years," said Gonyo. "We have a reputation to maintain and, in addition, we have to honor our regiment's Irish heritage."
The 69th Infantry traces its lineage to leaders of a revolt in Ireland in 1848. The leaders of the failed "Young Ireland" revolt created and trained a brigade of Soldiers of Irish descent in order to fight for liberation of their homeland in the future, which is the brigade that eventually formed the 69th Regiment of New York State.
Though the modern Regiment consists of Soldiers of all ethnic groups and religions, the 69th traditionally prefaces the parade with a Mass held at St. Patrick's Cathedral for Soldiers killed in action.
Irish Wolfhounds are prominent in on the regiment's coat of arms, and it was the traits and disposition of the Irish Wolfhound that inspired the 69th's motto "Gentle When Stroked, Fierce When Provoked."
In addition, Soldiers don sprigs of the Boxwood tree on their name tags in order to commemorate the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. With their green battle flag torn, the Soldiers of the 69th wore the plant on their blue uniforms so they could carry some green into combat with them as they charged the Confederate lines.
The officers and senior sergeants traditionally carry Irish fighting sticks made from the Irish Blackthorne tree tucked under their arms during the parade.
"It's the little details and the little nods to the Regiment's history and traditions that make the parade special to so many involved," said Gonyo.
And though the planning and preparation leading up to the parade can be very stressful at times, Soldiers know exactly what to do each year and treat the planning as they would any staff exercise, said Gonyo.
"The parade is something that can be enjoyed by everyone," said Gonyo. "If people view the event as a party, as though its creation were effortless, it means that we as a unit have succeeded."
Ed Dunn Jr., a Brooklyn resident and a Soldier with the 69th from 1965 to 1974, is one of those who see the event as a good time. Dunn marched with the Veterans Corps of the 69th in this year's parade.
The corps, comprised of former members of the 69th, aims to preserve the history of the regiment and to foster camaraderie, morale and welfare of the 69th's Soldiers and families.
"We always act with them, march with them, support them," said Dunn. "It's an honor. We're really proud to be part of the 69th."
All in a row, these Soldiers old and new walked the 90 blocks from the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue to 86th Street and back. They marched past St. Patrick's Cathedral, where earlier in the day they listened to Cardinal Edwin O'Brien, a Bronx native and a chaplain during the Vietnam War, talk about their sacrifice.
"I am struck in awe by the Fighting 69th," O'Brien said. "The many members of the 69th here have very much kept alive the tradition of the Irish brigade in tours to Iraq and Afghanistan the past few years."
Finally, at the end of the 90 blocks, they marched back into the Armory, where Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an honorary member of the regiment, led the Soldiers in the chorus of "Garry Owen," a traditional Irish tune adopted as the regimental song by the 69th.
The regiment received its nickname as the "Fighting 69th" from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Battle of Malvern Hill in 1862 in Virginia.