Salute to 'Fighting 69th' Northport ceremony honors members of NY's Army National Guard regiment for their service in Iraq

Newsday Staff Writer

May 8, 2006

During his year in Iraq, Paul Walter suffered a traumatic brain injury after being struck by a car bomb, saw three close friends die and was stationed on the notorious “highway of death” – Baghdad’s airport road.

It was perhaps a small gesture to receive an American flag, a commemorative coin and certificate at the Army National Guard’s Freedom Salute ceremony in Northport yesterday. But it was one that he and his family, along with other guardsmen, said they did not take lightly.

“I remember after Vietnam, nobody got any awards,” said Thomas Walter, Paul Walter’s father, both of Port Jefferson Station. “Everyone wanted to forget the soldiers.”

Speakers addressing about 200 members of the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment, “The Fighting 69th,” and the 42nd Infantry Division Band tried to send a different message: that unlike after Vietnam, their efforts would not go unnoticed, even as public support for the war is withering and the number of American casualties rises.

“It’s very important while you’re over there that people believe in what they’re doing,” Sgt. Troy Haley of the 69th Regiment said. “What they do isn’t about politics. It’s about defending a nation they believe in.”

The 69th Regiment was deployed to Iraq in October 2004 and returned last October. They were among the first National Guard units to provide assistance at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) told the guardsmen how he visited Iraq two weeks ago and was asked by soldiers, “Are Americans supporting our troops?”

To let them know they were, he said he took a photo of the audience sitting alongside Crab Meadow Beach from the stage to send to them.

“Nobody has a right to forget the 19 [fallen guardsmen from the Fighting 69th] we remember today,” or those still in harm’s way, he said.

Guard members were seated before two fire trucks whose ladders were extended to hold a giant American flag high in the air.

A number of politicians, including Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, were in attendance. And the Northport Pipe & Drum Band welcomed them in.

The Freedom Salute award ceremonies are a nationwide campaign founded in 2003 to recognize Army National Guard members for their service.

After being approached by the Fighting 69th, Huntington offered to host the event for local guardsmen, and Supervisor Frank Petrone served as the master of ceremonies. Seventy-five of the soldiers are from the Town of Huntington.

“It’s a big thing,” Paul Walter said. “I’m sure seeing stuff like this makes them happy,” he said of the troops still stationed in Iraq.

Source :,0,296729.story?coll=ny-linews-headlines


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