By Marybeth Laguna
Sunday, November 30, 2008
My husband, Art Laguna, was a hero. He was a man of honor -- he kept his word and he valued truth and honesty, and he expected no less from anyone else. His life was spent in service to his country and his family.
Here at home, Art served as a sheriff's reserve deputy. He was a volunteer helicopter pilot and flew medical evacuation missions with the California National Guard out of Sacramento 's Mather Field. He was the father of four and grandfather of six.
Art was proud of his three-decade career with the U.S. Army and the National Guard. He served in Iraq three times and he deployed once to Bosnia. In 1998, he was awarded a medal of valor from the California Department of Corrections for piloting a National Guard helicopter that helped save a California man who'd been stranded by floodwaters on the roof of his car. And last June, the military awarded him the Legion of Merit for exceptional conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. I accepted this most recent honor on his behalf.
And this past week, as our family gathered around the table to give thanks for our blessings, one very important blessing was missing. Art was killed last year in Iraq when the helicopter he was piloting was shot down while assisting a U.S. Embassy convoy that had come under fire in a violent Sunni neighborhood in central Baghdad.
Art could have chosen a safer profession. He knew that -- and so did I. But from the time he was a child, all he'd ever wanted to do was to fly and to help people. At the time of his death, he was flying rescue missions into Iraq's most dangerous areas to help evacuate teams of U.S. government employees who had come under attack.
Since the horrible day in January 2007 when the telephone rang with the news that Art had been killed, I've experienced the breadth of emotions that anyone feels when they lose a loved one. There's intense pain, loss and grief. There's pride in his accomplishments, the choices he made and the way he lived his life. And, yes, there's anger.
My anger, however, doesn't come from the direction you might expect. I'm not angry at Art for the risks he took in life, or at the war that took that precious life. Instead, I too often find myself operating at a slow boil, sometimes exasperated and sometimes irate at those who never knew my husband or his colleagues, yet who insist on tarnishing their memories each day.
Because when Art died, he wasn't working for the military. He was working for Blackwater.
Art considered his job with the private security firm that protects U.S. diplomats in Iraq a continuation of his service to this country. He told me that he believed in the job and respected the mission. But somehow, this one word -- Blackwater -- gets in the way of a lucid, reasoned discussion.
Art first went to work for Blackwater in August 2006 and was on his second deployment with the company when he was killed. When I tell people these facts, they rarely express appreciation for his services. Instead, most suggest that he was crazy to go back. I've had people repeat the ridiculous urban legend that Blackwater instituted martial law in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and ask me whether Art had been a part of that. At a recent social event, someone asked me whether Blackwater was the same company that "goes around shooting people." I've heard the news media and even elected officials casually throw around words such as "cowboy" and "mercenary" to describe men and women who voluntarily go into harm's way to protect others. Those caricatures are wrong. They might describe someone's antiwar agenda, but they don't describe my husband or his colleagues.
This public relations spin on contractors by antiwar activists has unfortunately gained traction, and the smearing got worse after an incident in September 2007, when a Blackwater team found itself in trouble and opened fire, tragically causing the deaths of several Iraqi civilians. What I know about this comes only from the media; the company said the security guards were responding to an ambush. But when this newspaper reported that federal prosecutors had sent letters to six Blackwater Worldwide security guards involved in that incident, there was a resurgence of unfair mischaracterizations of the company and its contractors.
I don't know the Blackwater men involved or the details of that day. But as the wife of someone who was deployed to a war zone four times, I do know that whether you're a member of the military or a private security contractor, if you think you're in trouble, you're going to protect yourself. I also know that, in addition to his prior extensive military experience, Blackwater required Art to go through rigorous training before sending him to Iraq. The same was true of all his colleagues.
Our all-volunteer military is overwhelmed and doesn't have enough soldiers with the experience it takes to guard the kinds of high-profile and highly targeted Americans who must travel around Iraq. That's why veterans working for contractors such as Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy and others are stepping up to serve their country again.
My husband and his fellow contractors answered a call. Art didn't do it for the money. He wanted to contribute in any way possible so that his kids and grandkids could continue to enjoy the American dream. He wanted to test himself and give back to his country using the training he'd received throughout his life.
Just like soldiers, security contractors based in Iraq face daily threats to their lives. Rather than demonizing these men and women, we should be thanking them for the essential service they provide. Whether they are working for Blackwater or directly for the U.S. military, they are all risking their lives to work for the United States. And they deserve our respect.
Marybeth Laguna lives in Sacramento.