NEW YORK – More than 2 million people lined the streets of mid-town Manhattan to watch the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry lead the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the 171st time on March 17.

Held every year since 1762, this year marked the return to total capacity after two years of being scaled back due to COVID-19. 2020 and 2021 saw only ceremonial marches to keep the tradition unbroken.

“Today is an important day not only for the 69th but for the city of New York,” said Lt. Col. Shawn Tabankin, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry. “The St. Patrick’s Day Parade was the first large-scale event that got canceled in 2020 and now it is the first large-scale event to come back.”

In 2020, the parade was canceled just a week before it was to happen. To keep the tradition going, roughly 50 parade officials, volunteers and Soldiers from 69th walked the parade route, a fraction of the thousands usually taking part in the parade.

2021 would also see the same scaled-back walk along the parade route.

“I think the city needs this parade; it really does,” Tabankin said.

New York City officials estimated that over 2 million lined the parade route that goes up to 5th Avenue from St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 51st Street to 80th Street.

That number, Tabankin pointed out, was roughly the population of the entire United States when the parade first started in Colonial times.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Tabankin about leading the parade. “You feel the weight of the legacy and lineage and honors on your shoulders.”

“But what a powerful feeling it is to have 700 odd Soldiers behind me calling cadence, echoing off the buildings as we’re marching up 5th Avenue,” he continued.

The parade is full of tradition for the Soldiers of the 69th, with each member wearing a spring of boxwood on their uniform which was first seen worn by the Union Army’s Irish Brigade in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 during the Civil War where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee also gave them their nickname, “The Fighting 69.”

Officers carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood and imported from Ireland as they are a mark of an Irish leader and gentleman. Tabankin himself wore the “Kilmer Crucifix,” which was worn by poet Joyce Kilmer who was killed in action during World War I as a member of the 69th.

“It’s huge,” Tabankin said of maintaining the unit’s traditions. “The Fighting 69th today has a reputation because of the veterans who came before us, so they need to know what they did to earn that reputation.”

Another tradition is the presence of two Irish Wolfhounds, the mascot of the 69th Infantry and representative of their motto, “Gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked.”

“It feels great,” said Spc. Joseph Lynch, an infantryman assigned to the 69th who led one of the Wolfhounds as an honor for winning the Battalion’s best warrior competition.

“These traditions mean everything to me,” Lynch said. “The 69th is one of the oldest National Guard units and being part of that, being part of the traditions, part of the parade itself and being able to walk through my city in this uniform means everything to me.”

“It’s a true honor,” he continued.

The Wolfhounds are raised and provided to the 69th by Eileen Flanagan. She has been working with the Battalion since 1988 after being invited by former 69th Infantry and 42nd Infantry Division commander, retired Maj. Gen. Joseph Healey.

“General Healey called us in. He had gotten to know our dogs and us through Rockefeller Center parade, he called us and asked us to bring two dogs for the mascot and we’ve been here ever since.”

Flanagan explained that with her family all from Ireland, she is more than happy to provide the Wolfhounds year after year and keep working with the 69th.

“It’s marvelous,” she said. “The regiment holds a special place in our hearts because it was originally the Irish regiment.”

“Today, we have a brother and sister pair, Billy, who has been marching for three years and Autumn, this is her first year,” she said of the four-year-old Wolfhounds.

Just ahead of the Wolfhounds was the regimental piper, Joe Brady, who started as the official piper in 1989 and marched alongside the battalion commander.

“There is a bagpiper tradition with the 69th; they always have one,” Brady said. “The then adjutant general, General [Lawrence] Flynn, asked me if I would take on the role officially,” Brady said.

“It’s just tremendous to be associated with such a decorated regiment,” he continued. “The relationships we’ve established over the years, there’s nothing like it.”

After 33 years, though, 2022 marked Brady’s last parade as the 69th’s bagpiper.

“This is my last year, I have someone here who will take over and who shares the dedication I have to the regiment and it’s just time to pass the baton,” he said.

This parade is also one of the last celebrations the 69th took part in before the rest of the year seems them deploying.

“This parade is special to us this year because many of these Soldiers have been on the front-line mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic now; we’ve been training up for our federal mission to deploy to Africa.”

Having led each year since 1851, when comprised of Irish immigrants, they were asked to lead the parade in case of anti-immigrant violence, and deployments won’t stop the 69th ever having a presence at the head of the parade.

“Thankfully, we have the Veterans Corps to stand in our shoes when we’re gone, so next year when we’re deployed, the vet corps and the regimental headquarters will step up and march for us,” Tabakin said. “Even when we’re not stateside, our veterans will do it for us.”

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – The son of a former South Dakota National Guard Soldier is following in the footsteps of his father by becoming the newest member of the organization he once served. Connor Briest, son of Sgt. Corey Briest of Yankton, was sworn into the SDNG March 11.

Connor enlisted in the same occupation and unit his father was in 17 years earlier, as an artillery crewmember in the Yankton–based Bravo Battery (formerly Charlie Battery) of the 1-147th Field Artillery Battalion.

While Connor and Corey share a similar story to many other fathers and mothers whose sons and daughters also join the National Guard, what makes their situation different is the challenges their family has had to overcome.

Corey was severely injured in an IED explosion that also claimed the lives of several SDNG Soldiers while deployed to Iraq in 2005. Despite his injuries, Corey made a remarkable recovery. Connor, who was just a year old when Corey was injured, grew up experiencing the challenges his father and family would face in the years to come.

Despite a traumatic brain injury that limited Corey’s mobility, vision and speech, seeing his father’s resilience and call to service was a motivating factor for Connor to join the National Guard.

“I want to honor my dad, for one,” Connor said of why he joined the SDNG. “I’ve always wanted to do it since I was very young. I’m pretty excited to serve my country and follow my dad.”

“This is something he has always wanted, and we are proud to support him and the decision he is making,” said Jenny Briest, Connor’s mother and Corey’s wife. “As parents, we sat down and talked to him and wanted to make sure why he was joining, and he has very good reasons of doing it.

“Connor knows firsthand of what the sacrifice is and what comes with the commitment that he is making because this is all he has known since he was little,” Jenny added. “But Connor also sees the brotherhood of [the National Guard] and what this can do for his life.”

Connor, like Corey, joins the SDNG during his junior year of high school and will attend Basic Combat Training later this summer, followed by Advanced Individual Training after graduation next year.

While Connor said he is excited to begin his service, his plans also include attending Mitchell Technical Institute to be an electrical power lineman following his military training.

Connor is not only following his dad into the SDNG; he is adding to his family’s lineage of military service.

“Both Corey’s and my grandpas served, Connor’s step-grandpa was in the same unit as Corey, and many of our uncles also served, so we have a pretty good family line of service,” said Jenny.

Although Corey’s speech is limited, Jenny says Corey thinks it’s pretty neat Connor is in his old unit with the same occupation he had.

“Corey says he feels honored that he is joining. He’s pretty proud of him,” she said.

While Corey is proud of his son and his decision to serve, Connor feels the same about his father.

“My dad is a hero of mine, and he made one of the greatest sacrifices possible for our nation,” Connor said.

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. – Master Sgt. Justin Lafon stares intently at an image of a skeleton striding along, watching legs, feet and knees working in concert. The knee sweeps forward, rolling the foot onto the toes and lifting it into the air before planting it again, shifting down as weight settles onto the leg again and again.

The bones he’s looking at are his own. It’s the first time he’s seen his running stride from the outside, with detailed tracking analysis showing the exact path his joints are taking. It’s a new program brought to the Airmen of the 173rd Fighter Wing by the Health Awareness and Education Team (HEAT). It’s called RunDNA, says certified corrective exercise specialist Amy Jones, and it represents an opportunity for every Airman to avoid injury as they train for their fitness test or otherwise enjoy running.

“Running is a huge source of injury,” she said. “Typically, that results from overworking — not knowing how to run in terms of intensity level and running too hard for too long.”

She said that results in pain in the knees, back, Achilles tendon and foot or ankle.

“Running is a part of your life in the military, whether you choose to do it year-round or one month out of the year for the PT test,” she says.

That annual one-month crucible works for some Airmen, many of them young, but she stresses it can backfire.

“It’s a recipe for injury,” she said. “You’re going to go from a state of rest, where your body is not used to any sort of physical activity that resembles running, and you jump right into running, and you’re running every day and running hard.”

Jones says she and her team can help using RunDNA. “This is cutting-edge technology, and it’s something that not a lot of Air Force Bases or Air Guard bases have access to.”

The mechanics involve placing 18 feedback sensors on a runner’s legs, knees, hips, ankles and feet and using a computer-based video system to capture their stride on a treadmill.

“We are able to take a single capture,” she said, referring to the video file, “and then view it from every single angle.”

The RunDNA software analysis is instant, spitting out solutions for gait problems such as overstriding or favoring one side or the other. The file can be saved for future reference.

Lafon, an avid runner, says he was able to make several improvements during the session.

“I wanted to see what my stride looks like and see some areas for improvement,” he said. “I’ve pretty much been freewheeling it, going out on my own.”

He left with information on mobility and stretching tailored to him and the promise of a more efficient running form.

Senior Master Sgt. Colin Carr, who was just certified to administer tests, says it’s useful for any runner regardless of ability or experience.

“I think it’s fun to have this high-tech, super-professional view of how you run,” he said. “You never get that anywhere unless you are a professional.”

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – As a kid, David Allen Stone always wanted to be in the military and serve his country. Enlisting in a post-9/11 era, Stone knew he would be deployed overseas. However, he never envisioned the internal struggles he would endure during his military service.

For many, depression and suicide are taboo topics no one wants to talk about. However, Stone has turned his pain into music, with hopes of helping others struggling with mental illness.

Stone, an Illinois Army National Guard sergeant first class, is part of the 123rd Engineer Battalion in Murphysboro. He has served in the Illinois Army National Guard since 2004, when he enlisted at the age of 18.

Deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq gave Stone perspective on the personal demons many veterans face. Like many veterans, Stone turned to alcohol to cope with his depression. It was those personal struggles that enabled the 35-year-old to hone in on his passion, finding an outlet that helped him cope. Now he’s helping others struggling with depression and suicidal ideations.

“I wrote the song ‘Bury These Burdens’ when I was in a pretty dark spot in my life and thought I could fix my problems at the bottom of the bottle,” Stone recalls. “I thought ending my life would be best for everyone, until a conversation with my aunt, Angie Watson, helped me use my passion for music to focus on my pain.”

Stone said he wrote the song to unleash his sadness and anger in a way where no one would get hurt. However, when a high school friend and fellow Illinois Army National Guard Soldier died by suicide in January 2020, Stone knew it was time to act.

“I had the song started, but after Tyler Zellers passed away, I really focused my mentality on getting the message out,” Stone said. ‘I wanted others to know that it’s OK to talk about your feelings. For me, it helped talking about what I was going through. You can’t hold it in. I want others to know they’re not alone. You can talk about it. There are many others going through similar struggles just like you.”

Zellers’ sister, Chrissy (Zellers) Arvin of Hutsonville, said she doesn’t want to see others endure what her family has gone through.

“Because of what happened, so many people have opened up about things,” Arvin said. “If it changes one mind not to make the final decision Tyler did, then it’s absolutely worth it. Tyler didn’t die in battle, but he lost his life for this country.”

Stone’s biggest advice to people struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide is to find something you love and you’re passionate about and surround yourself with positivity. Stone said embracing his passion for music helped save his life, and now he wants to help others with similar struggles.

“If you’re going through depression or dealing with alcoholism and don’t think life is worth it anymore, start hanging out with people who give you positive verification you are a good person,” Stone said. “You’re on this Earth for a reason; you just haven’t found your purpose in life yet. Surround yourself by people you admire and find an escape from reality.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs reports there are an average of 20 veteran suicides per day, and suicide among veterans accounts for approximately 14 percent of all suicides in the United States every year.

The Illinois National Guard has taken a strong proactive approach to veteran suicide, training Soldiers on what to look for and how to help someone who may be contemplating suicide.

“Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) equips the Soldier with the ability to identify risk factors and intervene in a suicide situation,” said Erica Metzger, Illinois Army National Guard risk reduction coordinator.

The Illinois Army National Guard has 370 Soldiers (4 percent of the overall force) trained to intervene if someone shows signs of suicide.
In addition to ASIST, Illinois Army National Guard leaders can enroll in an eight-hour ‘Ask, Care, Escort (ACE) Suicide Intervention Course.’

Thirty-five Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers have taken their own life since 2003. However, those numbers have decreased the past few years. In 2019, four Soldiers died by suicide. Since 2019, four Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers have died due to self-inflicted wounds.

While it may be difficult to find positives in life when you’re coping with depression, Stone encourages others to find outlets to channel their emotions so those feelings aren’t bottled up inside.

“Music is my escape, but it’s also a way to put your emotions into something,” Stone said. “If I’m angry, my music will reflect that. If I’m sad, the song I’m writing will reflect those feelings.”

Stone said he was sad and depressed when he wrote “Bury These Burdens.”

“I just wanted to help,” Stone recalls. “With that mentality, I wrote a song that can help others if they listen to the message. I want others to know they’re not alone. There’s always someone there for you. You just have to reach out and talk. That is the key behind the song. Don’t hold it in anymore. Talking to others helps you understand there are other people struggling in similar ways.”

Arvin doesn’t understand why we think it’s taboo to talk about suicide.

“Our brains are just as important as everything else,” Arvin said. “If we’re sick, we go to the doctor to get medicine. We don’t think twice about it. We need to start treating ourselves the same way and learn what to look for in others.”

Stone and his wife, Brittany, have been married since September 2010. They have two boys, 10-year-old Draven and 8-year-old Bayne. Brittany says she has witnessed the ups and downs during their marriage and believes in the message of this song.

“I think everybody needs something where they can take a break from life and do something they love,” Brittany said. “David is able to use music to escape from reality and the stress of life. I think it’s important for people to find something that makes them happy, something that helps them escape from reality for a little bit.”

Stone hopes his battles with depression will help show others there isn’t a negative stigma with mental health. Admitting you are struggling is the biggest step to recovery.

“We’re Soldiers. We don’t talk about our feelings,” Stone said. “Talking about your feelings doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you are less of a man. It just means you are strong enough to know you need help. That is important for everyone to understand, not just those serving in the military.”

Stone has performed at a few places since the song was released on Veterans Day 2021. Once the pandemic subsides, Stone is hoping he is able to be more active in suicide prevention, especially in the veteran community.

“I don’t care if this song hits 5 million people,” Stone said. “If it affects just one person in a positive way, the song is a success. If this song can help just one person from taking their life, then I’m happy.”

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Anastasia Maynich was overcome with emotion when she saw her cousin, Tetiana, and Tetiana’s 11-year old daughter, Sofiia, at Henri Coandă International Airport in Bucharest, Romania, March 4.

“I was running to them and we just hugged and cried and hugged and cried and just stood there and cried,” she said. “It was extremely emotional.”

Maynich, a Ukrainian native and naturalized American citizen, left the United States last week to help Tetiana and Sofiia, who fled their home amid the war in Ukraine. A traditional National Guard Soldier with the California Army National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade, Maynich took leave from her full-time civilian job as an emergency management specialist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View to help her family through the humanitarian crisis in her home country.

Not long after Russian forces invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, Maynich said her cousin knew she had to leave. Tetiana, a police officer at Odessa International Airport, saw a missile land on the military side of the airport and thought about her daughter.

“If anything happens with a Russian takeover, because of where she worked … and because she is very patriotic to her country, she most likely will be executed,” Maynich said of her cousin’s situation.

Tetiana and Sofiia packed what they could. They left Odessa early one morning and headed toward the Moldova border.

“On the Ukrainian side, they were getting shot at,” Maynich said. “The cars were being shot at, so she had to flee that as well.”

Once they were cleared to enter Moldova, Tetiana and Sofiia pushed on to Bucharest and met Maynich at the airport. The 365-mile journey from their home in Ukraine’s third-largest city took four days.

Maynich, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, was relieved when she saw them.

“I wasn’t even that emotional when I came back from both deployments,” she said. “I’m just happy they were able to get out safely.”

Maynich grew up with Tetiana in Odessa before emigrating from Ukraine to the United States with her mother and sister when she was a teenager. The pair reconnected in Odessa in 2017 while Maynich served as an interpreter during a Cal Guard State Partnership Program mission.

“It was really great,” Maynich said. “I hadn’t seen her in 17 years.”

The California National Guard and Ukraine have had close ties for 30 years through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which pairs each state’s National Guard with an allied country for mutually beneficial training, sharing best practices and strengthening relationships abroad.

Maynich remains in Romania to help Tetiana and Sofiia navigate life as refugees and begin the process of sponsoring them to come to the United States so they can live with her as long as they need to.

She is serving as a translator for her cousin – Maynich speaks Ukrainian, Russian and English – and providing financial stability at a time when she says few banks in Bucharest are willing to exchange Tetiana’s Ukrainian money for the local currency.

“I’m trying to save two lives, at least, as much as I can,” Maynich said. “That’s literally the only thing I can do at this point.”

When they’re not researching the immigration process or arranging for places to stay, Maynich, Tetiana and Sofiia are going to local refugee meetups to serve as translators and hand out water, calling cards, and other donated items.

“A lot of refugees here are doing the same thing. They don’t speak any English, so I’ve been kind of helping them out with translation and everything,” Maynich said.

An older man she helped arrived with just a backpack. Holding back tears, he told her of horrors he saw while running to catch a bus across the border.

“It’s extremely heart-wrenching,” Maynich said. “It hits home so hard, and I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Even with two deployments to war-torn areas, this is different.

“In [the] Iraq and Afghanistan deployments, we were always on the mission. We were always doing stuff. I have never really experienced what I’m seeing right now,” Maynich said. “This is my family. I love America, but I also love Ukraine because it’s my culture, my heritage.”

NOTE: Tetiana and Sofiia’s last name was withheld for safety amid the ongoing conflict.

COLCHESTER, Vt. – When Vermont National Guard Spcs. Ryan Moon and Riley Benoit deployed to Southwest Asia with Task Force Avalanche, the mortarmen did not anticipate a 12-day mission in Afghanistan, taking part in the evacuation of thousands as part of Operation Allies Refuge.

Orders to move to Afghanistan came suddenly. When the call came, the mortar platoon was conducting live-fire training in Southwest Asia.

“Fifteen Soldiers went from our platoon, two medics and additional mortarmen from Colorado, Maine and Rhode Island units departed for Afghanistan,” Moon said about what happened Aug. 17.

Moon said Soldiers prepared their gear before official orders came down.

“Across the board, everyone brought their sleep system, a couple of sets of uniforms, several MRE’s, and individual weapons,” said Moon.

“We departed our base in a C-17 transport aircraft packed full of gear and troops for the four-hour flight,” Benoit recalled.

Arriving at Kabul International Airport early Aug. 18, the Soldiers spent the night in an airplane hangar they would call home for the next two weeks.

The next day, mortarmen took up defensive positions in another airport building and began to patrol their sector of the airport.

“We patrolled the same streets and northern section of the airport’s perimeter wall for the remainder of our time in Kabul,” said Benoit. “Some days, you would be in a tower on the wall and could see daily life in the city. Other days you were walking some of the inner roads of the airport among the refugees.”

The Guardsmen had additional duties throughout their time providing security for the withdrawal.

“We’d go and clear buildings of weapons, ammunition, and other sensitive items so they would not fall into Taliban hands,” Moon said.

An average day consisted of waking up at about 1 a.m. and providing security until around 9 a.m., patrolling in half-hour shifts.

After 12 days at Kabul Airport, U.S. military forces departed Afghanistan Aug. 29.

“I never expected this sort of mission in my military career,” Moon said. “I’m glad I was able to help secure safe passage for some of those who have helped us over the past two decades and their families. I believe we performed our duties well and were good ambassadors of our country and our unit.”

”There was a lot of emotions getting on the C-17 to fly out of Afghanistan,“ he said. ”Knowing that it was the last day of a war for us that has been going on for most of my life was a very humbling experience. I will never forget how it felt when the plane left the ground.”

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