To listen to Ray Blanda and Bill Siano converse back and forth and the camaraderie between them you would think they had been friends since grade school. But they only became best friends four years ago at a chance meeting, however, the bond between them is as strong as the military oath they took when they were barely out of high school.
Ray joined the United States Army after graduating high school in 1964 wanting to enlist to pursue journalism in the military – instead, he got into army intelligence after a few years without knowing as time went by in the military he would be a career soldier on a new path with many promotions to come.
Bill quit high school at age 16 and self proclaimed himself as “well on my way to being a bum” According to him his options at the time if he kept on his path was jail or the military, choosing a more disciplined course he said “let me join and see what happens,” He also joined the Army starting out in artillery and eventually finished high school while stationed in Germany. He traveled all over Europe and while stationed in Italy ran an ambulance for his unit and eventually got into Army communications. His travels eventually took him to Vietnam where he did two tours of duty during the Vietnam War running a convoy up and down. Bill made a career out of the military and retired after 25 years as a First Sergeant.
Ray also got to see the world while a young soldier in the Army. Instead of military journalism he ran covert operations and during the Cold War gathered intelligence on enemies and then in Italy did security surveys of NATO sites, On Ray’s Army cap is a Bronze Star. He was given that recognition during his service time in Vietnam when he ran covert operations which confirmed the locations of prisoner of war camps and also stopped the Vietnamese army from attacking units after he located their operation camps.
“You learn how to survive in a way,” says Ray. “There are two types of fears; one that forbids you from acting and one that makes you aware and focuses more. We all have a little PTSD, you can’t not see what we have seen and not have it. But we had a support group, there was always someone you can talk too,” says Ray.
On Bill’s military cap there are stripes in a diamond shape proudly displayed. He states that both of them during their military careers were in charge of a unit with hundreds of men and women that they were responsible for the health, welfare, and morale of all. While in Germany Bill was responsible for over 200 military men and women and their families. “You take care of them like your family. You see your soldier’s come alive,” says Bill. “number one thing is loyalty- these kids are motivated and loyal.”
Ray remembers when he was a First Sergeant at the National Training Center in California and had to go to Tiawana Mexico to bail a few of his men out of jail when they went a little crazy over a long weekend of partying. “Boys will be boys,” says Ray. “When they got back to camp they were very sorry they ended up in that jail,” he says with a smile.
Both friends grew up and matured in the service and after their military careers went on to pursue other successes. Ray went on to college under the GI Bill and earned a teaching degree, where he taught GED prep courses at a jail in Bridgeport. Bill has worked for the Valenti Toyota dealership in Westerly for the past 20 years in a variety of roles. “When I got out of the military I learned how to be a real man,” says Bill. “I faced responsibilities, raised a family and paid my bills.”
Ray and Bill are very much community oriented and have been active members of the American Legion Post 16, and VFW Post 8955 in Westerly for years and in fact that was how they met a few years ago at a meeting and formed an instant bond. “We knew everything about the area in Vietnam after telling war stories and I said wait a minute I was there,” says Ray. “You can’t know those places unless you been there. We were there together in different units, 100 yards apart.”
Bill was the VFW Department of RI State Commander last year and Ray is the current State Commander and Bill is his Chief of Staff. Ray is also a member of the Westerly High School Alumni Association and a member and Chaplain of the Westerly Elk
Their advice to veterans and all military persons young and older; “do not be afraid to ask for help. “Seek counsel and guidance,” says Ray. “Whatever you need that is why we are here. “we have been there – and we want to be there for you.”
Come meet old and new friends and learn about Veterans benefits!
Veterans Coffeehouse (All Veterans and spouses welcome), Coffee, conversation, and community speakers
Meets twice monthly: Second and Fourth Thursday of the month / 9-11 a.m. @ Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, 27 Chase Street, Pawcatuck, CT