One of the most skilled helicopter pilots in the sky, he was decorated for valor for saving lives at home.
In January 2007, Art Laguna and his crew were killed while flying a mercy mission to save the life of an American diplomat pinned down by enemy fire in Iraq. The Department of Defense posthumously awarded him the Legion of Merit earlier this year - a decoration for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements."
Yet when many people hear his story, they don't think of him as a hero at all.
His widow, Marybeth, writes in the Washington Post that she's pretty angry about it. In her words:
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 US 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.
Marybeth Laguna says her husband wanted to use his military skills to serve his country again. That's why he joined Blackwater in Iraq, flying the company's famed "Little Bird" helicopters for the State Department's security detail. As she puts it,
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 US military, they are all risking their lives to work for the United States. And they deserve our respect.
And our gratitude.