Part of the Philadelphia City Paper article series on Philadelphian causalities of the War in Iraq. Originally published in the October 27th-November 2nd, 2005 issue, online version available here. — CS 14.06.2008
Infantry: Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry Regiment (Mechanized)
Died: Aug. 9, 2005 in Beiji, Iraq, age 31
At the corner of Lehigh Avenue and Tulip Street, former police Officer Gennaro “Gerry” Pellegrini Jr. still watches over his 26th District streets. Memorialized in paint and mortar as part of a block-long mural, Gerry kneels amidst three smiling Iraqi children, fist raised, eyes steady.
“Gerry had only a few loves in this life,” Police Capt. Lou Campione said at a recent ceremony to dedicate the memorial. “Love of God, love of family, love of neighbor and love of country. Gerry transcended our community to include [Iraq’s] community.”
Born at Frankford Hospital, Gerry would be fueled by ambitious dreams but led by duty. This, even though he seemed more given to the easygoing lifestyle of a typical Port Richmond/Fishtown youngster. Never more than an average student, he hopped around Philadelphia’s public- and private-school systems before finally graduating from Fels High School in 1991. For roughly the next decade, he worked as an auto mechanic.
“The truth is,” explains his sister Kim Petaccio, “he was hanging out. He was a typical guy. He liked loud music, driving big cars, going to the bar.”
Yet, there was a stronger quality to him, explains his mother Edith. “He was very loyal. He never backed down from a fight. He would always defend a friend,” she says, before pausing and laughing to herself. “I’m sure he started a few of those fights, too.”
Gerry was not without serious aspirations, namely to become a police officer like his father, and a professional boxer. He’d been training as a welterweight since he was 20 but never had any military ambitions. But in 1998, allured by promises of a great college-tuition package, he joined the Army National Guard even though his family tried to convince him otherwise.
He took the police exam twice and enrolled in the academy in October 2001. His father retired from the force in May 2002, and Gerry became a full-fledged officer that July, receiving his old man’s badge number: 3722. He was on the beat a full three years, “and absolutely loved it,” says Gerry Sr. “To serve and protect, that’s what he got to do. He never complained, and any detail Capt. Campione needed, he’d do it.”
It seemed that his life was finally on course as he expected to fulfill his Guard commitment in April 2004 but, two weeks before that could happen, he was activated and deployed. Gerry was “mad,” and denounced the conflict in Iraq as a “so-called war” in a Daily News article. He told the paper he was “too out of shape [for combat],” and, as his fiancee had just broken up with him, too heartbroken over that and the danger he was about to face. Nevertheless, “he still did his job,” says Gerry Sr.
His life in shambles, Gerry accomplished one of his dreams: On May 21, 2004, at the Blue Horizon, he won his first, and only, professional bout with a fourth-round knockout. Then, he was off to the Middle East.
Gerry never told his family what he experienced in Iraq for fear of worrying them. The day several other members from his unit, including Brahim Jeffcoat [Was It Worth It, Christopher Schwartz, Oct. 20, 2005], were killed, he phoned loved ones to say, “Just in case you see this on the news, it’s all right, I’m OK.”
Three days later, Gerry was dead.
While investigating an incident involving a rocket-propelled grenade, Gerry’s humvee drove over a buried improvised explosive device (IED), which was remotely detonated. The humvee was obliterated yet some 35 insurgents stormed the burning wreckage and shot the soldiers’ bodies. They then fled into nearby woods, but were killed when an air strike leveled the forest.
Was It Worth It?
Today, Gerry’s family remains enraged, claiming the stop-loss order which pulled him back into combat is really a “back-door draft.”
“He never should have been in Iraq,” argues Gerry Sr. “We should never have done away with the draft — it could have stayed on as a per-diem draft — because then we wouldn’t have a personnel shortage and then this would never have happened.”
Edith says soldiers should have been pulled out when the search for weapons of mass destruction weren’t found.
“This is a losing battle,” says Gerry Sr. Iraqis believe “that their life begins after death. I feel that when we leave, they’ll go right back to where they were before, just with different leadership.”