By Spc. Megan V. Zander, 241st Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
NEW ORLEANS – The red, white, and blue flag stands tall in a room filled with current and former National Guardsmen and family members.
Posted under the words “Never Forget,” the photos of eight Louisiana Soldiers hang proudly – Sgt. 1st Class Kurt Comeaux, Staff Sgt. Christopher Babin, Sgt. Bradley Bergeron, Sgt. Huey Fassbender, Sgt. Armand Frickey, Sgt. Warren Murphy, Sgt. Paul Heltzel and Sgt. 1st Class Peter Hahn.
Under each photo rests a pair of combat boots, helmets, dog tags and weapon.
“It’s just an empty feeling being here without them. I still can’t explain how I feel. It’s hard,” said Jonathan Boudreaux, who served as a machine gunner alongside Fassbender, and was at Heltzel’s side when he died. “There’s still a hole in our hearts for these guys. I know I’ll never forget them – I can’t.”
These eight Soldiers of the Louisiana National Guard’s C Company (aka the “BlackSheep”) 2nd Battalion, 156th Infantry Regiment, 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, were killed in combat in 2005, while serving with the New York National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment in Iraq.
“Hundreds of Soldiers sustained injuries warranting the Purple Heart and 36 Soldiers from the brigade paid the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Clifford J. Ockman, who served as the Black Sheep’s first sergeant during the deployment. “As we remember these Soldiers 10 years after their passing, we can never forget what they sacrificed.”
“Though we are separated by hundreds of miles, and though it has been 10 years since we served together in war, the Soldiers of the 69th will never forget all of the Soldiers from the ‘Tiger Brigade’ that we have served with …but most especially, we’ll never forget our closest and our greatest friends from the BlackSheep,” said Lt. Col. Sean Flynn, current commander of the 1-69th.
Historically, however, these two units haven’t always fought together on the battlefield.
During the Civil War, Louisiana’s “Tigers” served under General “Stonewall” Jackson in the Valley campaign as well as in the famous battles of Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Appomattox. Several engagements pitted them against New York’s “Fighting 69th” of the Irish Brigade, particularly at the Battle of Malvern Hill in July of 1862.
In 2004-2005, the New York National Guard’s 1-69th Infantry Battalion, still known as “The Fighting 69th,” was attached to Louisiana’s 256th BCT, aka “The Tiger Brigade.” These two historic units, once bitter enemies in the nation’s bloodiest war, found themselves fighting side-by-side against and insurgents in Iraq.
It was a dangerous mission, but the Soldiers knew that going in.
“My brother and I were outside talking before his deployment, and he reminded me that he could lose his life; he loved the military and this is something he wanted to do,” said Shannon Murphy, sister of Sgt. Warren Murphy.
“Although it has been ten years, and that may seem like a long time, our feelings are not measured in days or years,” remarked retired Maj. Gen. John Basilica Jr., commander of the 256th during the deployment. “Our feelings are permanently etched in our being, and we connect with these men in our own unique ways because we will never forget.”
The ceremony was filled with emotion, some of it heartbreaking and some of it joyous.
“It’s just amazing to get together again to see everybody and know that people still remember and still care,” said Ann Comeaux, mother of Sgt. 1st Class Kurt Comeaux. “My son loved what he was doing, and he was with his guys. When he was not with us, this was his family.”