Having led New York City's St. Patrick's Day parade in the morning, and with calls to war on hold, members of the National Guard's 69th Infantry Regiment gathered at their home armory Monday to celebrate relationships built under fire, and to honor fellow soldiers killed during the unit's 2004-2005 combat in Iraq.
"Two of them were my guys, so it's always in my mind," said First Sgt. Peter Swiderski, 50, of Ronkonkoma, who was a platoon sergeant when bombs destroyed a Humvee, killing two men in his unit.
With the aroma of corned beef scenting the air, and men in camouflage gear greeting each other over cups of Guinness, a mostly celebratory atmosphere pervaded the unit's headquarters on Lexington Avenue, a hulking 1906 Beaux Arts edifice that, in addition to accommodating troop assemblies, also has hosted the groundbreaking 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, and the annual Victoria's Secret Fashion show.
Although the New York National Guard has about 550 troops serving in Kuwait -- with another contingent scheduled to leave for Afghanistan this spring -- there are no plans to send the 69th back into combat, said Maj. Gen. Patrick Murphy, state National Guard commander. The 69th includes units on Long Island.
The 69th or its precursors have led the parade every year since 1851, when members of a mostly Irish militia were asked to protect marchers from anti-Irish nativists.
Yesterday, the unit's troops greeted each other wearing sprigs of boxwood greenery, in recognition of the unit's combat for the Union in the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., after which an impressed Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee gave the unit its "Fighting 69th" nickname. Before the battle, soldiers in the mostly Irish unit had placed boxwood sprigs in their hatbands as a sign of Irish solidarity.
Just after dawn Monday, a bagpiper led members of the 69th to St. Patrick's Cathedral for a special Mass. The soldiers then gathered at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, where they stepped off with the parade's 11 a.m. start.
But it was when they returned to the armory shortly before 1 p.m. that they found time to catch up with the old friends they'd fought alongside in battle.
Some of them ribbed Master Sgt. Israel Mahadeo of Huntington, who served with the 69th in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and who was presented with the Army's Meritorious Service Medal, one of several soldiers who received medals Monday.
"There are only a few of us left," Mahadeo said, noting the dwindling number of men from the 2004 deployment who are still in uniform.
Mahadeo, who was a truck mechanic in Iraq, had recovered the bodies of 18 of the 19 members of the 69th who were killed during the yearlong deployment, including seven men who perished when their Bradley personnel carrier was hit by a bomb in August 2005.
"Honestly, I don't think the pain can go away -- I don't talk about it," he said. "But it's good to see people who understand what you've been through.
"This brings back memories," he said of the post-parade gathering. "But the better memories."