NY National Guard troops to lead NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade for 167th time

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Soldiers from the 69th Infantry marching in the 2017 New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade. (Sgt. Alexander Rector).

NEW YORK (03/13/2018) (readMedia)-- For the 167th time Saturday, New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, the Army's famous "Fighting 69th," will step off as lead formation of the 2018 New York City St. Patrick's Day parade.

The 69th Infantry was originally organized as a militia unit for Irish immigrants in New York City. Because of fears that anti-immigrant groups would attack the Irish Catholic parade, the 69th was asked to lead parade in 1851 and has done so every year since.

The unit was nicknamed "The Fighting 69th" by Confederate General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War because of their heroics on the battlefield.

The unit's Soldiers have distinguished themselves in World War I, World War II, and deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.

Because of the regiment's roots in Irish-American history St. Patrick's Day is also the 1st Battalion, 69th's "Unit Day," during which the battalion's Soldiers are recognized for their accomplishments.

This year the unit expects to host Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau, and marks the unit's centennial of service in World War One as part of the 42nd Division in France.

The regiment, renamed as the 165th Infantry for federal service in WWI, served in Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne at Château-Thierry, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne.

A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick's Day Parade. These include:

• Soldiers placing a sprig of boxwood on their uniform because members of the Irish brigade put boxwood springs 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 because they are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman;

• Soldiers are accompanied on their parade march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th Infantry. The dogs are representative of the regimental motto, "gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked";

• The battalion commander carries the "Kilmer Crucifix," the religious icon once worn by poet Joyce Kilmer --the author of the poem "Trees"-- who was killed in action serving in the 69th in World War I. It is handed down from battalion commander to battalion commander;

• 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 honor its Irish heritage.

• The City of New York provides a dedicated subway train to transport the Soldiers back down to the East Village for their unit day activities;

• When the Soldiers return from the parade and enter the Cooper Union Hall for their unit day ceremonies, they are cheered by the battalion's officers who render honors and pay tribute to the enlisted Soldiers and Non-Commissioned Officers.