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A father’s mission to bring home Purple Heart medals to families of airmen killed in 2018

On the third anniversary of his son’s death on March 15 this year, John Raguso stood alongside Eli Briggs at Calverton National Cemetery. The two men shared an unenviable bond, each mourning the loss of a son killed while on active duty in the Air Force.

Three years had done little to ease the pain.

Master Sgt. Christopher Raguso, 39, and Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs, 30, were two of the seven airmen who died in a HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crash in Iraq, near the Syria border, in 2018. They were each members of the 106th Rescue Wing based in Westhampton Beach, where as airmen they rescued hundreds of people following natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey in Texas. 

The gravesite where Tech. Sgt. Briggs, a Riverhead native, is laid to rest happens to be next to Lt. Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Afghanistan, which would later be portrayed in the movie “Lone Survivor.”

Mr. Raguso, who splits time between his hometown in Elwood and a house in Jamesport, had reached a breaking point. Three years had now passed and his son and the other airmen still had not received any decoration for making the ultimate sacrifice.

“I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘Mr. Briggs, if it’s the last thing I do on this earth, I’m going to get our boys a Purple Heart for doing what they did for this country,’ ” Mr. Raguso said. “And he looked at me and said, ‘John, you’re the only guy who can make it happen. I wish you the best of luck.’ ”

The Purple Heart is the oldest active-military medal in the United States and is one of the most recognizable awards in addition to the Medal of Honor. It formally became known as the Purple Heart in 1932, and in 1942 it was expanded to include all the military branches, according to the National WWII Museum. It had previously been reserved as an Army award.

Master Sgt. Raguso, left, and Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs, right, pictured in 2018. (Courtesy photo)

Thanks to the relentless efforts of Mr. Raguso, there’s renewed hope that the airmen could receive the prestigious medal.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), and members of Congress representing each district where the fallen airmen lived, formally submitted a letter last week to the U.S. Secretary of Defense for consideration of the Purple Heart for those “who made the ultimate sacrifice on March 15, 2018 in the helicopter crash of ‘Jolly 51’ of the 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron.”

The officials in the letter wrote that the fallen service members should receive the “honor and acknowledgment for their bravery and commitment to the mission.”

John Raguso and his son Marc pictured in June 2018. (Credit: Nicole Smith/file)

Mr. Raguso said with a new administration in place, he hopes a fresh set of eyes on the circumstances of the crash will allow the airmen to receive their rightful recognition. 

Mr. Zeldin said in a statement the four airmen from the 106th “are heroes who gave their lives in selfless service to the United States, defending freedoms and liberties often taken for granted.”

The formal letter began with a draft written by Mr. Raguso, who adamantly maintains the crash on that moonless night came on combat mission and was due to enemy anti-aircraft wires.

An overhead view, looking southeast, of the area where the helicopter crashed last March in Iraq. A cable connected to the towers, pictured at the top, was responsible for the crash. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“If you die for your country on a combat mission, you get a Purple Heart,” he said. “You should get a Bronze Star, you should get a whole bunch, too. But bottom line, you got to get a Purple Heart.”

He said the Air Force having deemed the crash an accident has prevented any movement on the airmen receiving the Purple Heart.

A United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board report released several months after the crash said the helicopter struck a galvanized steel cable strung horizontally between two 341-foot high towers about 1,000 yards apart.

Mr. Raguso called it a “fly trap” purposefully designed near the Iraq/Syria border as an anti-aircraft mechanism. The Air Force report listed pilot error as a key factor in the crash.

They and their families deserve to be recognized with the Purple Heart and etched in history for their acts of bravery and sacrifice.”

Rep. lee zeldin

In the letter this month, the members of Congress wrote how the co-pilot steered left to avoid a tower and unknowingly flew into the second of four sets of wires that were a “fly trap,” echoing the term Mr. Raguso coined.

“Through testimony presented by members of helicopter Jolly 52, present during the crash, it is to our belief the wires mainly responsible for the crash were constructed by opposing forces,” the letter said. “The purpose of their strategic installment was to ground enemy aircraft.”

The gravesite for Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs, pictured on Memorial Day at Calverton National Cemetery. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Mr. Raguso, who spoke directly with members of special forces familiar with the circumstances of that night, said he believes the Air Force downplayed the mission the men were on. The Air Force report described the mission as to move two helicopters to a new location where they would be closer to respond in support of an upcoming operation. If any personnel or assets needed rescue in the upcoming mission, it would be the crews assigned to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing that would respond, the report said.

Mr. Raguso, a charter boat captain, has gotten to know several local politicians over the years. He said the political push to help with the medals began with County Executive Steve Bellone, who wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin after learning the airmen had not received a medal. At the same time, he connected with Steve Castleton, the civilian aide to the Secretary of Army. Mr. Castleton notified Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who represents the 3rd District where Master Sgt. Raguso lived. Mr. Suozzi agreed to help and connected with Mr. Zeldin. With Mr. Suozzi leading the effort, they eventually expanded to include representatives of all the service members and the process began toward finalizing a letter that everyone felt comfortable with.

The process unfolded over several months.

“All of these men gave their last full measure of devotion for our country,” Mr. Suozzi said in a statement. “The posthumous awarding of Purple Hearts to these airmen will serve as a permanent symbol of their courage and the strength of character they demonstrated for us.”

The crash claimed the lives of Maj. Christopher Zanetis of Long Island City, Capt. Andreas O’Keeffe of Center Moriches, both of whom were with the 106th. Also killed were pararescue team members, Master Sgt. William Posch of Indialantic, Fla., Staff Sgt. Carl Enis of Tallahassee, Fla., and Capt. Mark Weber of Colorado Springs, Colo.

Mr. Raguso still beams when talking about his son’s accomplishments, whether from missions abroad or domestic, or his work as an FDNY firefighter or volunteer with the Commack Fire Department. His son’s life was devoted to service and helping others.

He hopes the fellow families can find a bit of peace and closure by receiving the posthumous recognition. 

“You’re never the same,” he said, after losing a child in war.

When he thinks back to that day with Mr. Briggs at Calverton National Cemetery, he knows he doesn’t want to let him or any other family member down.

“I will fulfill that promise,” he said. “I will.”