NEW YORK – The New York Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion 69th Infantry started St. Patrick’s Day with one commander and ended it with another.
Lt. Col. Don Makay marched at the head of the battalion as it led the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue. It was the 168th time the 69th Infantry led the world’s biggest St. Patrick’s Day parade and Makay’s third time leading the parade.
Following the parade, Makay turned command of the 800 Soldiers of the battalion over to Lt. Col. Joseph Whaley during a ceremony in the Great Hall of Cooper Union college.
Makay began the day leading the battalion’s officers in a traditional Irish whiskey toast to the regiment. Then, for the last time, he led the 69th to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the traditional Mass that comes before the parade.
There, the Soldiers were recognized by New York City Cardinal Timothy Dolan for their service and the 69th’ Irish heritage.
Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, the former Archbishop of Baltimore and the Military Services, cited the example of service and sacrifice by the Citizen- Soldiers during the Mass homily.
“Greater love than this, no one has, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” O’Brien said. “And you are willing to lay down your lives not only on behalf of friends, but for unknown and helpless faces halfway around the world.”
The battalion then led the city parade up Fifth Avenue as it first did in 1851, accompanied by the New York Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division “Rainbow” Band. They were followed by the Wantagh Pipes and Drum band, the Bergen County Police Pipes and Drum Band, the regimental veterans and reenactors of the regiment from both the Civil War and World War I.
Soldiers placed a sprig of boxwood on their uniform to recall Irish brigade members who placed boxwood sprigs in their hat bands to identify them as members of the regiment during the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862. In a matter of minutes charging Confederate defenses at Marye’s Heights, casualties reduced the unit from 1,600 Soldiers to 263.
The 69th Infantry supposedly got the nickname “The Fighting 69th” because of a remark made by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee during the Civil War following their heroics at Fredericksburg.
“St. Patrick’s Day is our way to connect to the past service members from our unit,” said Staff Sgt. Edwin Caba, the Battalion Scout Platoon Sergeant. “Knowing that we have marched in this parade for over 160 years means something special,” said Caba, a West Haven, Connecticut, resident.
The regiment is also the subject of the Irish folk song “The Fighting 69th” and the 1940 war movie “The Fighting 69th” which starred Jimmy Cagney.
Once the parade was over, a dedicated subway train took the battalion to Cooper Union. There the officers of the battalion cheered and applauded the Soldiers as they marched into the building.
Because of its Irish-American heritage, St. Patrick’s Day is also the battalion “Unit Day.” Soldiers were recognized for their accomplishments with awards, promotions, regimental scholarships and the presentation of the unit Soldier and NCO of the Year, this year to Spc. Joseph Ryan and Staff Sgt. Phillip McIntire.
Joining the regiment as a special guest was retired Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, former commander of the Army’s Special Operations Command, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and CIA Associate Director of Military Affairs.
“It is an incredible pleasure to be with you today, to toast this regiment, attend the Mass and march with you in the city parade,” Mulholland said.
“If today is about the celebration of all things related to Irish-Americans and their legacy in this country, the 69th is what represents that legacy for me,” Mulholland said.
“I see America in this formation, every race and creed. You represent what this country is made of,” he said.
“You have two great legacies to uphold,” Mulholland told the battalion, “that of the original Citizen-Soldier and that of your rich Irish heritage.”
“Your challenge is to raise the bar for the 69th, and that is a very high bar indeed,” Mulholland said, “to make this battalion even better. There’s no question, you are already doing exactly that.”
The change of command from Makay to Whaley was the last event of the day.
Makay, a New York City resident, has led the battalion since St. Patrick’s Day in 2016.
“Lt. Col. Makay’s dedicated and selfless service to the regiment for over three years has been truly tremendous,” said Col. Christopher Cronin, commander of the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the higher headquarters of the 69th Infantry.
“He has reinvigorated and continued its lineage, making a mark not only on the colors, but on the history of the unit.”
The new command for Whaley, from Rockville Centre, New York, is also a homecoming as he returns to the battalion where he first served with Bravo Company in 1999.
“Lt. Col. Whaley is no stranger to the ‘Fighting 69th,’” Cronin said. “He grew up in the regiment serving in various leadership positions, from platoon leader in Iraq to the executive officer of the battalion.”
Whaley is a successful businessman in civilian life and that dual commitment to his military and civilian careers gives him a unique appreciation for the command, Cronin said.
“He understands the complexity, dedication and friction that all National Guard Soldiers face while balancing their civilian lives, their love of the Army and their dedication to fight for both our nation’s freedom and strategic national interests,” Cronin said. “Your selection is a credit to the quality officer that you are.”
“It has been a privilege to serve alongside you and add to the history of this legendary regiment,” Makay said. “It has been an exceptional experience, but I’m ready,” Makay said. “I’m exhausted!”
“It is an amazing honor to be selected to lead you,” Whaley told his Soldiers. “I’ll ask only one thing of you – to do your best every day – and I promise to do the same.”