During what he announced would be his last combat tour, Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso of the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing took drum lessons in Iraq via Skype.
Raguso was also a New York City Fire Lieutenant, and the instructor was with the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. Raguso had not previously joined the band because his double calls to duty—along with being a husband and the father of two young girls—had not left him with the necessary time to spare.
But that would change when his final deployment ended in May. He would then be able to don a kilt and a beret with a tricolor cockade and become part of the band that had played more than 400 funerals and memorials after 9/11. He and his drumsticks would be helping to make what has become the very sound of good meeting evil, of indomitable grace in the face of crushing loss.
New members are formally inducted immediately after the band enjoys the annual glory of marching up Fifth Avenue at the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Raguso was still scheduled to be in Iraq at the time of this year’s parade, but he was expected to be back for the next. He would have plenty of time to keep taking lessons via Skype and in person once he got home.
Word then reached the band on Thursday night that Raguso was among seven killed when a helicopter crashed in western Iraq. The others included a fellow member of both the 106th Rescue Wing and the FDNY, 37-year-old fire marshal Christopher Zanetis.
On 9/11, Zanetis was a sophomore at New York University. He had immediately headed down to the smoldering ruins to do whatever he could to help, for a time carrying water for the first responders. He was prompted to proceed from graduating at the top of his class at NYU to joining the FDNY. He also enlisted in a branch of the Air National Guard dedicated to rescuing downed pilots and wounded soldiers when it was not saving lives in hurricanes.
“Talk is a lot of hot air, and action is doing something about it,” Zanetis told a reporter.
Zanetis deployed four times and was in Afghanistan in 2012, when his unit was credited with saving more than 100 lives in six months. The unit swooped in to make one particularly dangerous rescue and they were able to extricate themselves only after a British unit commanded by Prince Harry came in blazing. Zanetis is said to have posed for a picture with the prince at a New Year’s celebration soon after.
After 13 years with the FDNY, Zanetis took a leave to attend Stanford Law School. He graduated last year and took a job with a big firm.
But he was still a firefighter and he was with the Air National Guard. He shared that twin distinction with Raguso, who was decorated six times for bravery with the FDNY.
Both Zanetis and Raguso further demonstrated their bravery when they deployed yet again last summer. Zanetis would have needed no explaining why Raguso was practicing via Skype to become a drummer in the FDNY band. Raguso’s other communications back home are said to have included a FaceTime call with his daughters, aged 5 and 6, on his 39th birthday, March 14.
The following day, Thursday, Raguso and Zanetis were killed along with five others when their PAVE helicopter went down. One report indicates they may have hit a power line while flying low in darkness, the conditions and height considered safest in such a combat zone.
On Saturday, the FDNY Pipe and Drums once again led the department’s contingent in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, filling the air with the spirted drumming and trilling of life ultimately triumphing over death.
Behind the band came two firefighters carrying a banner bearing the numbers 343. They were followed by firefighters carrying 343 American flags representing the 343 members of the FDNY who perished on 9/11, at the start of our longest war.
After them came another banner. This one had two names, along with their photos and a number code that the FDNY has used since 1870 to signal the death of a firefighter.
“LT. CHRISTOPHER RAGUSO
FM CHRISTOPHER T. ZANETIS
REST IN PEACE
MARCH 13, 2018”
All these years after the 343 we are still losing some of our very best people. And the conflict seems sure to continue on through next year, when some of the soldiers have not even been born when the hijacked planes flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The band sounded stronger than ever on Saturday as it continued on to the end of the parade route. The members and a good many other firefighters then retired to the basement of the school adjoining the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
After a moment of silence for Raguso and Zanetis, the time came when the band would have formed a circle of honor around any new members and formally “piped them in,” or inducted them with a tune.
Drum Major Liam Flaherty announced that there were no new members this year. He then spoke of an aspiring member who had been taking drum lesson via Skype in Iraq. He announced they would be doing something a little different for Lt. Christopher Raguso.
“We’re going to play him in as an honorary member of the band,” Flaherty advised.
Flaherty signaled for the pipers and drummers to make ready for a new member who stood in spirit at the center of the circle of honor.
“This is for you, Chris,” Flaherty said. ‘This is for you, brother.”
The band played Raguso in with a rousing version of ‘America’. Flaherty afterwards spoke the names of both Christophers, Raguso and Zanetis.
“We knew them, we’ll remember them and we’ll never forget them,” Flaherty pledged.
A whiskey toast was followed by the singing of ‘Wild Rover’, followed by a rendering of ‘God Bless America’ so heartfelt it seemed the Almighty might even be listening. The pipes and drums will be playing at two more funerals.