Paul Raggio | Memorial Day 2022: ‘I Once Was’

Paul Raggio
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A story told on behalf of a fellow soldier:

I once was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. I made it to sergeant and was proud to be part of the All-American history. My story is no different than the thousands before me who fought in wars in our storied history. I was a hometown kid with average grades, average looks, and an average family. There was nothing extraordinary about me other than my ambition to join the Army. My father served, and our family was so proud when he shared his stories about Desert Storm with friends and us. He always commented that it made a man out of him, and he still stays in touch with all his buddies and the commanding officer. 

I decided in my high school senior year, right after football season. My parents encouraged me to go to college. So did my girlfriend. So, I took the SAT and other entrance examinations and even applied to a few schools. But that’s not where my heart was. I wanted to be a soldier like my dad. After winter break, I went to our local recruiter and talked to him about joining. He asked me what I wanted to be in the Army, and I said a paratrooper like my dad.  

Mom was the toughest to break the news to. She started crying and asked why in the world I would want to join the Army. I didn’t have a great answer. I just said it’s what I wanted to do. Dad pulled me aside and whispered in my ear that he was proud of me and could understand. My girlfriend, like my mom, thought I was nuts. No one joins the Army anymore, she said. Her words were ringing in my ears during my bus ride to boot camp, and I thought, what have I gotten myself into!  

I shipped off to Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the infantry and airborne. I loved basic and advanced infantry training. Then came airborne school, a grueling three weeks of what I hoped to be fun but was challenging, both physically and mentally. Mom, Dad and my girlfriend all came to my graduation ceremony. There was more crying, but this time all three told me how proud they were of me, and I looked and acted differently… like I was all grown up and more serious about life. My next assignment was the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with some of my buddies. Home of our nation’s contingency corps and nicknamed the All-American Division because of its double “AA” patch. 

I valued my life as a paratrooper, and there’s nothing like the All-American Division. Our sergeants and officers would say we were the best of the best – the best trained, the best team, the best outfit, the best paratroopers in the Army and the world. There were very few like us. Our purpose was to protect the vital interests of our nation and, when called, deploy to troubled world spots within 18 hours of notification to do our country’s bidding. Less than 1% of our nation’s population serves in the armed forces, and what makes us unique is our willingness to put our lives on the line to protect the freedoms and liberties of our fellow citizens. 

Afghanistan was a different world. My buddies and I were always anxious to deploy. We wanted to test ourselves in battle. This deployment was my first time leaving the United States. We operated just like we trained. I was amazed at how much I remembered and my confidence in performing my duties as an assistant squad leader. Before deploying, corporal stripes were pinned on me, the first rung on the noncommissioned leadership ladder. I felt like I was part of something bigger and meaningful on a much grander scale. We all felt that way. 

My fellow paratroopers were my brothers and sisters, not by blood but certainly in my mind. We were and ever will be connected. I’ll admit I was scared, scared of killing and being killed. However, I was confident that my training would kick in and I would perform. I wouldn’t let my battle-buddies down, no matter what. We lost some of our teammates in gruesome firefights. The unit memorial service honoring their death was sad, meaningful and impressionable, especially during roll call when the first sergeant called out their name three times. There was absolute silence in the ranks. The rest of us vowed never to forget. That’s a paratrooper’s worst nightmare, not the dying, but being forgotten. 

My last day was no different than most others. We were on patrol, and I tripped an improvised explosive device. My death was instant or near-instant. Images, sounds, feelings and smells ricocheted through my mind until I saw the light. Some of my buddies were injured and made it back to the states. They came to my funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, and my All-American brothers and sisters were attesting to how good a paratrooper I was. Of course, they tossed back a few Gentlemen Jacks in my honor. A warrior’s toast is what we call it.  

My ceremony was like thousands of others that took place at Arlington. There was a church service, and my company commander, one of the injured, gave my eulogy. I was awarded the Bronze Star with V device and the Purple Heart and promoted posthumously to sergeant. Both medals were handed to my crying parents in beautiful cases, as was the American flag at the graveside service after Taps. The horse-drawn caisson with my casket on top, escorted by the Old Guard, from the chapel to the graveside, was to be seen and witnessed. What a send-off!     

I never intended to make Mom and Dad gold star parents, yet that’s what I did, just a hometown kid with average grades, average looks and an average family. I guess I’m not that average after all. Now I’m in repose with two U.S. presidents, the buried remains of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and women, dating back to the Civil War. The first burial was in 1864, and I won’t be the last. I now rest in peace, remembered by millions of my fellow citizens for our sacrifices so they could live in this great country of ours. Never forget, that’s all I ask, and my sacrifice, like all my other brothers and sisters, will not be in vain.       

Retired Col. Paul A. Raggio is co-owner, with his sister Lisa, of One True North INC Leadership and Business Coaching Solutions. Paul and Lisa mentor and coach business owners on leadership and management principles in achieving and sustaining their business growth and profitability goals. He can be reached at [email protected].

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