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Long Island soldier who died in Iraq did not die in vain

The Old Guard places the transfer case of

The Old Guard places the transfer case of Master Sergeant Raguso onto a transportation vehicle during the dignified transfer of Air Force Captain Christopher Zanetis and Master Sergeant Christopher Raguso at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware on March 18, 2018. Credit: EPA-EFE / REX / Shutterstock / Scott Serio

 When John Raguso tells the story of his son's life and death, a particular day in 2004 when Chris did not die in combat in Iraq is as central to the tale as the day in 2018 when he did.

In 2004, Chris Raguso was a member of the New York Air National Guard serving his first tour in Baghdad when his base was attacked by insurgents. The two sides were engaged in combat when a mortar landed 10 feet from Chris.

"It should have exploded and killed him," John Raguso, of East Northport, said Monday. "That should have been the end. But instead, he lived and he went on to build this amazing life for 14 more years — meeting his wife, having two perfect daughters, becoming a lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, helping people and saving people, and setting an example. 

"I believe this whole thing is part of a cosmic plan, and I think I'm just a leaf in that plan."

I called Raguso to ask him about President Donald Trump's sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Syrian battlegrounds where they'd been fighting alongside Kurdish forces to eliminate Islamic State terrorists. Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso, 39, of Commack, was killed last year along with Capt. Andreas O'Keefe, 37, of Center Moriches; Staff Sgt. Dashan Briggs, 39, of Port Jefferson Station; and four others when their helicopter crashed in western Iraq. The men were serving in Operation Inherent Resolve, fighting ISIS alongside the Kurds in pursuit of the same goals Trump's critics say he is now abandoning.

But John Raguso does not see what the president is doing as dishonoring his son's memory or abandoning the Kurds, though he thinks those fighters "are getting a raw deal." Raguso thinks Trump is living up to a campaign promise to stop endless wars and bring our troops home. And Raguso rightly sees the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq for their own nation as a multi-century ordeal so complex that it's disingenuous to claim keeping U.S. troops there a bit longer would make the difference.

"We can't stay forever," Raguso said. "This is going to play out the way it is going to play out, no matter what. If one more American girl or boy does not have to die over there, it's a good thing."

Raguso believes his son made a difference by battling and killing ISIS terrorists, and Trump's pullback does not change that. And Raguso says he knows, thanks to calls and letters and conversations, that his son's death inspired 100 other people to pursue a life of service.

I was in Baghdad in 2004, too, working as an embedded journalist with elements of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Since I returned, I've argued that regions bedeviled by insurgency, ethnic battles and civil wars can reach stability only after outside forces leave, and that the United States needed to get out of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan (once Osama bin Laden was killed) as soon as possible.

Chris Raguso did not die in vain. No one who dies fulfilling a commitment to duty and honor ever dies in vain. And having demanded our troops be taken out of harm's way for 15 years because staying longer won't help, I cannot condemn Trump for this withdrawal.

But I am angered by the president's lighthearted and sarcastic tweets about abandoning the Kurds, and the chaotic way the United States has pulled back. Trump could have given the allies more notice before withdrawing, and he could have given the mission and the lives it claimed a lot more respect.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

CORRECTION: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this column misstated the country where Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso was killed.

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