CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq (Oct. 29, 2009) -- Seven years ago, then-18-year-old Nicholas Raia of Altoona, Pa., brought his trumpet to an audition for the Pennsylvania Army National Guard band. He aced the audition and until last summer was a member of several performance groups within the band.
Over those seven years he performed more and more with the band and ensembles playing the guitar for recruiting events and celebrations. For more formal military ceremonies he now plays the baritone.
After seven years in the band, Raia, now a sergeant, decided to take a year away from performing and volunteer for a combat tour. Since mobilization in January, Raia has served 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," said Raia.
To get ready for the transition from full-time student and weekend band member, Raia volunteered for additional training in weapons and combatives. In June 2008, he attended the Small Arms Master Gunner course at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., and he completed the week-long 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.
His transition from band member and college student to door gunner was not an easy one for Raia.
"It was a decision that I struggled with for a while," Raia 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."
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. His final decision to deploy was met with mixed emotions.
"My unit could not have been more supportive of my decision," Raia 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."
His friends, on the other hand, were confused by his decision.
"Many of my friends are not in the military and I think that makes a big difference," he said. "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."
"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. Raia continued. "My family has been super supportive of my decision. 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 bring together all of his training, experience and education by becoming 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.