LATHAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) — When the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade kicks off on March 17, a Clifton Park resident will lead the way. National Guard Lt. Col. Shawn Tabankin will be in front of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, a New York City-based National Guard unit that has led the parade since the mid-19th century.
Tabankin, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, took over the “Fighting 69th” in December 2021. “Since 1851 the 69th Infantry Regiment has provided a military escort to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and, for us, it is a day where nearly every action taken is a nod to some portion of our long and storied history,” Tabankin said.
The 2020 New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic just days before the infantry was set to lead it for the 169th time. Although the parade was shut down, soldiers from the battalion joined members of the parade committee in marching up 5th Avenue on March 17, 2020, to keep the tradition going.
On March 17, 2021, 50 masked soldiers marched once again to maintain the tradition. The soldiers are looking forward to this year’s more-normal event, according to Tabankin. “It represents a return to normalcy following the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the Soldiers marching have been on the front lines of the COVID response mission and this parade will mark the point where we transition from our state mission back to our federal one as we prepare to deploy,” Tabankin explained.
Parade organizers have said the 2022 event will be the biggest ever held in the city. Over the years, a number of rituals and symbols from the regiment’s history have been tied to the parade, Tabankin said. The unit’s soldiers fought in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and in deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The nickname “the fighting 69th” supposedly comes from Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He is said to have referred to the unit as “that fighting 69th regiment” after the battle of Fredericksburg in 1863.
Tabankin is not the first Clifton Park resident to lead the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Major General John Andonie, who now serves as deputy director for the Army National Guard, was the commander of the 69th infantry in 2008 and 2009.
Traditions surrounding the 69th infantry and the parade include
- Soldiers place a sprig of boxwood on their uniform because members of the Irish Brigade put boxwood sprigs in their hat bands at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 to mark their Irish heritage.
- Officers of the 69th carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland.
- Soldiers are accompanied in their parade march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th infantry.
- The battalion commander carries the “Kilmer Crucifix” in memory of poet Joyce Kilmer, author of the poem “Trees”, who was killed in action in World War I.
- The regiment’s officers start the day with a toast of Irish whiskey.
- The regiment attends a special Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to honor the regiment’s fallen and its Irish heritage.
- When the parade gets set to kick off at 11 a.m., parade organizers ask if the battalion commander of the 69th is ready. Soldiers respond with “the 69th is always ready.”
When the soldiers return home from the parade, they are cheered by the battalion’s officers. Everyone involved in the parade is rendered honors, and tribute is paid to the enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers.