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Face of Defense: Weekend Musician Fulfills Duty in Desert

By Army Sgt. Neil Gussman
Special to American Forces Press Service

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq, Oct. 30, 2009 – Army Sgt. Nicholas Raia said it was a sense of duty that made him give up the good life as a full-time Penn State student and weekend National Guard musician to volunteer to come here.

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Army Sgt. Nicholas Raia strums his guitar on top of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq, Oct., 24, 2009. Raia, who performs in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division Band, volunteered to deploy as a door gunner with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Neil Gussman
  

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After seven years in the Pennsylvania National Guard band, Raia decided to take a year away from performing and volunteer for a combat tour. Since January, Raia has served here as a door gunner on a CH-47 Chinook helicopter with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment.

“I felt that after seven years in the Guard, it was my turn to do my part overseas,” he said.

Raia, of Altoona, Pa., got his start with the Guard when, at 18, he brought his trumpet to an audition for the Guard band. He aced the audition and until last summer was a member of several of the band’s performance groups, playing trumpet, baritone and guitar for recruiting events and celebrations, and more formal military ceremonies.

Over the years he was in the band, Raia came to believe he should deploy with a combat unit.

“Our job [in the band] is unique in that we are in the public eye often, and we often get thanked for our service by people in our audiences,” Raia said. “I would find myself conflicted, because while it is true that we, as a unit, were serving our country in the way in which we were meant to serve, I also felt as if I should be doing more.”

Raia had several friends in the Guard who deployed overseas at least once in their careers. He said he felt those were the soldiers who truly deserved to be thanked.

“I felt that after seven years in the Guard, it was my turn to do my part overseas,” he said.

His final decision to deploy was met by his unit with unwavering support.

“My unit could not have been more supportive of my decision,” he recalled. “They helped me get everything on the military side of the house in order prior to my deployment and have made it a point to ensure it would not affect me negatively upon my return.”

To get ready for the transition from full-time student and weekend band member, Raia volunteered for additional training in weapons. In June 2008, Raia attended the Small Arms Master Gunner course at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa. To prepare for hand-to-hand combat, he completed the weeklong Level One Combatives Course in July. At the end of September, he was one of 10 soldiers in the first class trained in the new live-fire shoot house, also at Fort Indiantown Gap.

But his transition from band member and college student to door gunner had difficulties training could not help.

“It was a decision that I struggled with for a while,” he said. “It’s one thing to tell your loved ones you are being ordered to leave and a totally different animal entirely when you are trying to explain to them that you are voluntarily leaving.”

Raia said his civilian friends did not understand his desire to volunteer for combat in the way his military friends did. “People in the military think a little differently than those who are not and most of the soldiers in the military today could probably easily understand the feeling of responsibility that compelled me to deploy.”

His family also wasn’t happy with his decision, but has since become very supportive, he said. “My family worried about me and they were not real thrilled that I would volunteer to leave them for a year to go to a combat zone.” he said, but added, “Any previous uncertainty or worries has given way to pride in what I am doing.”

Before deployment, Raia completed all the requirements for a bachelor’s degree at Penn State with a double major in criminal justice and psychology. He plans to become a police officer after deployment — except on National Guard weekends when he will be back on stage or in formation at ceremonies in the 28th Infantry Division Band.

(Army Sgt. Neil Gussman serves with 28th Combat Aviation Brigade public affairs.)

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Related Sites:
Multinational Corps Iraq

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Nicholas Raia checks his weapon in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq. Raia, who performs in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division Band, volunteered to deploy as a door gunner with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Neil Gussman  
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