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- The People Behind The Sacrifice
Army Spc. Jeffrey M. Wershow
Died July 6, 2003 Serving During Operation Iraqi Freedom
22, Gainesville, Fla.; assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Orlando, Fla.; shot and killed on July 6 in Baghdad while conducting military operations.
A gung-ho young soldier falls victim to a Baghdad sniper
By Andrea Stone and Deborah Sharp
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Army Spc. Jeffrey Wershow never let his guard down. His buddies nicknamed him “The General” because he strode about with a sense of purpose and confidence.
Wershow, 22, was a stickler for rules and regulations. He always stood at attention when addressing officers, when most other soldiers sweltering in the heat here would take a more casual attitude.
So it was a shock on July 6 when the aspiring politician from Gainesville, Fla., was gunned down on the campus of Baghdad University after buying a 7-Up. If this gung-ho soldier who wanted another stint in Iraq could be killed in such a brazen way in a crowded place, his buddies figured it could happen to them, too.
For the men of “Charlie” Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment of the Florida National Guard, Wershow’s death occurred when most thought they would already be home. They have seen major combat turn into guerrilla war. “You can never let your guard down. You can never truly relax. And that wears on you,” says Spc. Thomas Stanley Sr., 27, of Melbourne, Fla., who’s in Wershow’s unit.
It didn’t help that these Guardsmen left their families and jobs — or, in Wershow’s case, his college campus — a day after Christmas. Or that they’d never received praise for their exploits in Iraq’s western desert, a corner of the war still shrouded in secrecy. Or that they felt overshadowed by regular Army units. And now, like the other 146,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, Charlie Company finds itself in a situation in which every Iraqi could be the enemy.
“Over the last six months, we’ve grown to be close. We’ve lived the same hardships, shared the same glories,” Capt. Blake Glass, 29, told several hundred people at Wershow’s memorial service here Friday. “We must continue to persevere.”
But that isn’t easy for U.S. troops. Attacks against the military are continuing, with one servicemember dying, on average, every day. As of Wednesday, 222 U.S. service members have died since the war began March 19. And 84 of them have died since President Bush announced May 1 that major combat here had ended.
Wershow was one of those servicemembers He was the 26th American killed in hostile action since May 1.
One soldier’s story
“He was a jam-up soldier,” says Sgt. Robert Hardwick, 32, of St. Augustine, Fla., of Wershow, his closest friend in the company.
Buddies say Wershow was intelligent, tenacious and so gregarious that he’d talk to anyone, anytime. He loved to debate, even going so far as to take a position he opposed just to get a good argument going. “He called himself a conservative Democrat, but we always teased him that he was a closet Republican,” recalls Glass, the company commander who’s also from Gainesville.
Wershow enlisted in the Army in 1999 after high school and served three years. When he got out in June 2002, he joined the National Guard. He had been back in Gainesville just six months, taking classes at Santa Fe Community College, when he was called to active duty.
Charlie Company was normally called on to help after hurricanes and forest fires. Now it was part of the largest federal activation of the Florida National Guard since World War II. Other units are serving in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Jordan, Kosovo and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
After several weeks of training, his company arrived at Prince Hussein Air Base in Jordan on Feb. 16. Their mission was to provide security and search-and-rescue support to the special operations forces.
Because of diplomatic sensitivities in Jordan, coalition operations launched from there before and during the war were cloaked in secrecy. Much of what went on has still not been fully disclosed. But Wershow’s unit became one of the first to enter Iraq as the war began. Under cover of darkness and using night-vision goggles to see, they breached dirt berms on Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia to allow special operations forces to drive through.
“It was like a squirrel mission. No one ever knew where the heck we were,” says Staff Sgt. Al Melendez, 37, of Orlando.
Wershow was assigned to provide security for the Jordan breach. He was so proud to be part of the effort that he attached both an American and a Florida flag to a pole and planted it atop the berm inside Iraq. As the special operations forces troops drove through the opening, a ramrod straight Wershow and his flags were the first things they saw as they went off to war.
“Jeff wanted to make sure everyone knew where we were from,” says Sgt. 1st Class Peter Laube, 37, of Auburndale, Fla. “It was a sight that all of us who saw it will never forget.”
After a month ferrying enemy prisoners of war and providing security for special forces troops, the soldiers were led to believe they would be sent home in mid-May. Instead, Charlie Company was ordered to Baghdad. Wershow fretted that he would miss the fall semester at college. He talked about following his father, Jon Wershow, a former Alachua County, Fla., commissioner, to law school and then, perhaps, to elected office.
The unit arrived in Baghdad on May 28. “It was when we got to Baghdad that the close calls began. The desert wasn’t our enemy. It was the big city,” Melendez says.
Wershow’s unit was assigned to guard one of the most sensitive sites in Baghdad, the convention center. The U.S.-held building houses the U.S. consul’s office and is used for media briefings and meetings of top-ranking coalition and Iraqi officials, including U.S. administrator Paul Bremer.
But Wershow would die across the Tigris River, on the campus of Baghdad University.
Wershow “believed in what we were doing 100 percent,” says 1st Sgt. David McDonald, 45, of Ocklawaha, Fla. “He was always raring to go. Always volunteered.”
Man down! Man down!
On July 6, Wershow volunteered to be part of a security detail for a team of Army civil affairs officers meeting with university officials. The mission was designed to be low-key. The small group drove over in two civilian SUVs instead of Army Humvees. A civil affairs officer said the guards could take off their helmets and body armor on campus. “We were told this was a secure area,” Stanley says.
The soldiers had been waiting for two hours while the meeting continued when Wershow went into a student cafeteria to buy a 7-Up. He was walking out to a shaded terrace, his rifle slung over his shoulder, soda can in hand, when a man who had been sitting near the cafeteria entrance walked up from behind. Reaching within arm’s length of the soldier, he raised a pistol and fired a single shot into the base of Wershow’s head.
“Comanche base! Comanche base! Man down! Man down!” Melendez radioed back to the convention center. Help arrived within minutes. But Wershow died at a military hospital a few hours later, never regaining consciousness.
Hardwick was about 100 feet away when he heard the shot. By then, students were running in every direction and the gunman had escaped in the chaos. Even if he had spotted the killer, there was no way to shoot without hitting someone else.
“I’m sorry about the soldier,” says Saif Al-Schmary, 22, an engineering student who was in the cafeteria at the time. He says he didn’t see the shooter but others who did described him as about 30 and “a stranger” who did not attend the university. “He killed him in cold blood,” Al-Schmary says.
Back home, a funeral
On Sunday, amid a misty rain and the rumble of thunder, Wershow was buried at his family’s farm near Gainesville. He was awarded a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and other military medals. More than 1,000 mourners attended a memorial in the Oak Hall School gymnasium.
Wershow’s mother, Anne Marie Mattison, says, “I’ve felt a very strong presence around me. It’s a very powerful feeling. A very serene and calm feeling. I know it’s my son.” That feeling helps her console her son’s friends: “I’m challenging them to not let Jeffrey die in vain, to do something with their lives that will make a difference.”
Only 25 minutes before he was killed in Iraq, Wershow had called home and left a message. His mother heard it a day later, after she’d returned from visiting relatives. By then, Army officials had already informed her Jeffrey was dead. “He said, ‘I was calling to say hi, and that I love you,’ “ she says.
In the week before he died, Wershow and his family exchanged e-mails about extending his service in Iraq. Wershow wanted to stay. His father wanted him home.
“We’d talk about what would happen if the unimaginable took place. This was the unimaginable,” Jon Wershow says.
“A lot of people were under the impression they were going to go over, win the war and come home,” Jon Wershow says. “This situation scared me from the day I found out he was going to Baghdad. They were trained for warfare, but this was a whole different concept. This is a police action.”
Wershow’s parents profess no bitterness that their son was in Iraq. His death is too recent to feel anything beyond grief.
“Am I angry with our government because he was still there? No. But I do have some questions I’d like to ask the president about strategy,” says Mattison, who oversees development for the University of Florida’s medical school. “I have concerns about how the troops are being used in Baghdad. It places them in great danger from these assassins.”
At Sunday’s memorial, there were major generals, brigadier generals and other officers. John Roscow, a family friend, says he saw more military brass than he did during his entire Vietnam-era Army career.
Friends described Wershow as a dependable young man who mixed political passion with a healthy sense of humor. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he was secure enough to play one of the sisters in “Beauty and the Beast” in high school. “No one will ever forget the dress he wore or how well he filled it. He brought the house down,” says Richard Gehman, headmaster at Oak Hall. He says Wershow’s flag-draped casket was under the basket where the former forward sunk shots, in the same cavernous room he marched across four years ago for his diploma.
“Someone isn’t dead until he’s no longer remembered. In that way, Jeffrey will live on for a very, very long time,” Gehman says.
Jon Wershow, 55, and Mattison, 52, have been divorced for more than a decade. Both are remarried. They shared custody of Jeffrey and his younger brother, Daniel, 18. Wershow was also close to his two stepsisters. The family is well-known in Gainesville. And Jeffrey Wershow was also on a path to prominence. He’d dabbled in local politics.
“Every little kid says ‘Someday, I’m going to be president.’ When Jeffrey said it, he meant it,” says his stepmother, Pam Schneider.
Wershow sent e-mails regularly to his Gainesville pals like James Green, 22. He wrote of rumored dates for his unit’s return. He wrote that some Iraqis seemed lawless, but others surprised him with their intelligence and command of English. And he wrote that the Iraqis didn’t seem to appreciate the U.S. mission: “They don’t understand that we’re trying to give them a better quality of life,” Wershow wrote on June 21.
The two young men, friends since elementary school, even discussed in e-mails the possibility of a mortal wound: “He said he was doing what he wanted to be doing, and that if it did happen, he believed his life would have been given for a better cause,” Green says.
‘Nothing could have been done’
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who visited Wershow’s unit, called Wershow’s killing “an assassination.”
“There was nothing that could have been done to prevent it,” says Glass, Wershow’s company commander. Stanley says that even if Wershow had been wearing a helmet, it would not have saved him: The bullet entered beneath the helmet rimline. “For every bad guy, there are a thousand other people who are willing to work with us,” Stanley says. “It’s just that one person who can do a lot of damage.”
Laube agrees. “There’s a certain group of people who don’t want us here and want to kill us because we’re wearing uniforms. But most are happy we’re here.”
“I was full of anger,” says Melendez, who with Hardwick and Stanley were on security detail with Wershow that day. “Someone so young like that shouldn’t be killed in such a nasty manner. It could have been any of us.”
Wershow’s death was particularly tough on a unit already disheartened at not knowing when it would go home. “Our kids want to do a countdown calendar,” says Hardwick, who has two sons. “But all we get is a runaround” when the soldiers ask about going home.
Stanley says he wrote his wife shortly before Wershow was killed that the longer Charlie Company stayed in Iraq, the more he feared something bad was going to happen to them: “It’s really time to get us out of here.”
(Stone reported from Baghdad; Sharp from Florida.)