By all rights, Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso should have died in 2004 — 14 years before his helicopter went down in Iraq, killing everyone aboard, according to his dad.
In the tough, early days of the Iraq War’s insurgency, Raguso, a New York Air National Guardsman, was serving his first tour in Baghdad, said his father, John, in a Nov. 15 interview. He was near the powder keg of Sadr City, when the Mahdi army, an insurgent group, invaded his base. Raguso engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat, his father said. Then a mortar round landed 10 feet away.
It should have detonated and killed him, John said. But it didn’t.
The bad fuse on that mortar gave Chris 14 years of extra time, his dad said — and he made the most of every bit of it. He had the chance to fall in love and get married. To become a father to two beautiful girls. To fulfill his dream of becoming a firefighter and lieutenant with the New York City Fire Department. To keep fighting for his nation. And to save hundreds of lives around the world — both civilians and his fellow troops.
Raguso and six other airmen died March 15 when their HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq. It was the day after his 39th birthday.
Months after his son’s death, the hurt and anger John Raguso still feels is evident in his voice as he wrestles to understand why — and how to help the family his son left behind get through the holidays without their father for the first time.
“I ask myself, why the f*** would God kill this man, when all he did was help people and save people?” John Raguso, a charter boat captain who lives on Long Island, said. “Why not take a drug dealer? Why not take a slimeball politician, and make the world a better place?”
“This is the one thing in my life I can’t fix,” he continued. “I feel like Atlas, with the weight of the world — not only on my shoulders, but on my chest, all over my body. Every moment when I wake up, I feel this emptiness, this loss, this pressure, this insanity, this inconsolable grief. And I’m trying to put it in perspective.”
Raguso, from the Long Island town of Commack, was an HH-60G special missions aviation flight engineer, assigned to the 101st Rescue Squadron of the New York Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing.
Tens of thousands turned out to honor him at his wake and funeral, lining the streets, waving flags as his casket made its way to his final resting place. He was lauded as a hero by President Trump and the Air Force, and remembered by the troops he fought alongside and whose lives he saved.
But John doesn’t romanticize his son’s early days. He remembers Chris as the young man who struggled with attention deficit disorder, which went undiagnosed until he was a high school sophomore.
Chris could be a “drama queen” in those days, his father said, laughing, and would pitch a fit when he didn’t get his way. He drifted through high school “like a leaf blowing in the wind,” started and stopped college a few times, and at first had a hard time figuring out his life’s path.
Things changed a year before 9/11. At the encouragement of John Raguso’s older brother Joe, a veteran officer in the New York Police Department, Chris took the test to become a policeman and did very well. But Chris instead announced at Joe’s retirement party that he had instead decided to become a firefighter — and had joined the Commack Volunteer Fire Department in New York.
John was surprised, and wasn’t sure how he would pull it off. But when Chris told him he realized he was meant to help other people and serve his community, John said he would support him as best as he could.
Years later, when Chris told his father he was going to go to flight school, John was again surprised and doubtful, given the way he struggled to focus with his ADD. But Chris was incredibly driven, and would figure out how to overcome any challenge that presented itself, his father said.
“You couldn’t set the bar too high, because he was going to find a way to beat it,” John said.
There was a three-year wait to get into the FDNY, so when a firefighting job opened up at the Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in New York, home of the 106th Rescue Wing, Chris jumped at the opportunity. He joined the Guard in June 2001, and John took pictures of him signing up.
About three months later, the nation was at war. Chris knew that he could be called upon to fight, and his family was concerned when he was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a fire protection specialist with the 106th Civil Engineering Squadron. When Chris narrowly avoided that mortar during the firefight, John said his son realized he had been given a gift.
“He said, ‘Dad, a bunch of things happened out there, and I’m going to change my life a little bit,’” John said. “’I’m going to be the best first responder that I can be.’”
Shortly after returning home, he got the call from the FDNY. Since he had been in combat, John said, the FDNY made him a squad leader and put him in charge of 25 people. He chose the roughest, toughest part of New York — the most dangerous fire department assignment in Brooklyn, John said, where he responded to fire after fire.
“I can’t tell you how many times I was called at 3 o’clock in the morning to come pick him up at some hospital because a roof fell on him, or he fell down the stairs, or a wall fell on him, or he got burned,” John said. “He learned how to be an excellent fireman. … He was the first guy to run into every fire, [and] the last guy to come out.”
The Air Force offered to send Chris to helicopter school if he re-enlisted, and he signed up for six more years. He went to flight school, excelled at gunnery school because he was an expert marksman, went to mechanic school, and went to SERE, or survival, evasion, resistance and escape, school.
Finding a soul mate
Chris had a lot of girlfriends in his youth — “he was a very handsome man,” John said — but all that changed in 2007, when he met his future wife, Carmela. Raguso’s mother, Laura, worked at a special ed school where Carmela taught. Every few months, Chris would come in and teach a fire prevention class for the students there.
When he showed up to Carmela’s school in full firefighter gear, John said, it was love at first sight.
“When they met, they both knew that this was the soul mate they were waiting for all these years,” John said.
A year later, Chris was gearing up for his first deployment to Afghanistan at the end of 2008 — and everyone knew the danger. Chris and Carmela were married by a justice of the peace in December 2008, and after he returned the following April, they had a big church wedding.
The couple had two daughters — Mila, now 7, and 6-year-old Eva — and when asked what kind of a father Chris was, John said, “Way better than me.” (Although John thinks he himself was a pretty good dad to Chris.)
“He was like the iron fist in a velvet glove,” John said.
Doing the right thing
Chris saw a lot of action serving as a flight engineer in Afghanistan on that deployment, and helped save a lot of Marines — many of whom were severely wounded. There were also several who died in his arms, John said, which reinforced Chris’ belief that he was doing the right thing — what he was meant to do.
He again deployed to Afghanistan with the 101st Rescue Squadron, as well as to Somalia with Navy SEALs in 2015. He went to Houston to respond to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, where he and his team flew their helicopter, Rescue 1, for 14 hours a day, seven days straight, and saved 135 people. Two weeks later, after Hurricane Maria, he went to Puerto Rico and saved another 50 or 60 people.
He continued to advance in the FDNY, and was on track to become a captain, when he returned to Iraq with the 106th Rescue Wing earlier this year. That’s when his Pave Hawk crashed in Anbar province, killing him and six other airmen: Capt. Mark Weber, Capt. Andreas O’Keeffe, Capt. Christopher Zanetis, Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs, Master Sgt. William Posch, and Staff Sgt. Carl Enis.
Chris’ death shattered the Raguso family — but they made sure to remember the example he set. In a news conference shortly after his death, his mother, Laura Raguso, tearfully said she begged him not to re-enlist.
“I said, ‘Papi, please, why do you have to do this?’” she said. “And he said ‘Mami, because if I don’t, who’s going to do it?’”
Scores of people whose lives he had touched came out to pay their respects.
At the wake, John said a pararescueman came up to Laura and saluted her. The pararescueman said he had total confidence in Chris — he could make sure his helicopter flew in 80-knot hurricane winds and could put his helicopter in places no other flight engineer could, he said. And then, the pararescueman gave Laura his maroon beret.
“He said, ‘Your son deserves this more than I do,’” John said. “‘Your son has rescued my ass so many times, I can’t even count.’”
When the mayor of Houston found out, John said, he sent an honor guard to New York to stand by Chris’ casket for three days.
Vice President Mike Pence stood and talked with John Raguso for a long time on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on March 18, while waiting for Chris to be flown back for his dignified transfer. (“I chewed his ear off, as an understatement,” John said.) That conversation evidently made an impression: A few months later, Pence called and said President Trump wanted to meet him.
John met with Trump Aug. 17, when the president traveled to the Hamptons for a fundraiser, and sat with him in a motorcade for five hours, which he said was a “singular experience.” He thanked Trump for the condolence letter he sent to Carmela and the girls, and gave Trump Chris’ firefighter mission patches, as well as a hat with a combination of the FDNY and 101st logos and his son’s name. He said Trump put his arms around him, and said he was rooting and praying for him.
He also talked with chief of staff John Kelly, who himself is a Gold Star father — though Kelly didn’t mention it to John Raguso. Kelly, a retired Marine general, eagerly listened to John talk about the Marines Chris saved in his helicopter.
He also stood on the dais, next to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the FDNY’s annual Memorial Day event in early October.
Making the world a better place
But one memorial service or other remembrance event follows another. One hosted by the Air Force, the next by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Commack Fire Department, the FDNY — events practically every weekend. John understands they all want to honor and remember Chris, and he appreciates it. But at the same time, he said, each one “reopens the wound.”
And then there’s the first Thanksgiving without his granddaughters’ father. And the first Christmas. And New Year’s. And birthdays, and wedding anniversaries.
“We need time to learn how to be able to deal with it,” John said. “You never want to forget, but you want to put it in perspective.”
Even before Chris’ death, his family faced challenges. Carmela is a breast cancer survivor, who had three operations last year, John said.
When asked if he truly wanted another article about his son published, or if it would add to the pain he and his family felt, John said he did.
The reason why is the same reason John believes God took his son: So more people can be inspired by Chris Raguso’s example, serve in their own way and make the world a better place.
“By taking this kid, 20 people have already stepped up and taken his place,” John said.
It’s already happening, John said. Inspired by Chris’ example, Carmela’s brother joined the FDNY, as did at least three of Chris’ trainees at the Commack fire department. Sons of family friends have joined the military or their volunteer fire departments, he said. He even gets emails from strangers saying how touched they were to hear Chris’ story, and that their sons have been inspired to serve as well.
“He was the bravest young man I’ve ever met in my life,” John said. “If he didn’t die for that, then he died for nothing. But I don’t believe he died for nothing.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.