More Death in Iraq: A Reluctant Soldier’s Story

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By: Will Bunch

“I just want to get it done, come home, and continue my life.” Those were just about the last words that Gennaro Pellegrini, Jr. — a 31-year-old Philly cop and up-and-coming boxer — said to me last November. In less than 48 hours, Pellegrini was to step onto an airplane bound for Iraq, along with the rest of his Pennsylvania National Guard unit from Northeast Philadelphia.

For anyone who’s worried about the return of a military draft, Pellegrini was living proof that we already have one. He desperately did not want to serve in the Persian Gulf.

He was just two weeks away from finishing up his six-year stint in the Guard when he was told that his tour of duty was being extended and that he would serve in Iraq for at least a year, maybe longer. The news could not have come at a worse time for Pellegrini. He was training for his first pro fight, newly engaged to be married, and settling into his job as a Philadelphia police officer, just like his dad.

Instead, he was ordered by his government to fight a war that he did not believe in. He told us that the conflict in Iraq was “a so-called war” and that he saw U.S. troops as caught in an impossible situation.

In the end, Pellegrini’s stay in Iraq lasted little more than eight months. His parents have just been notified that he was killed on Tuesday by a roadside bomb.

There is so much sadness, and so much irony. The news of his death comes at the very same time that a right-wing slime machine is trying to put words in the mouth of a dead Marine, 24-year-old Casey Sheehan. They have engaged in obscene speculation that he would not have wanted his mother Cindy Sheehan — the anti-war protester now camped outside the Bush compound in Crawford, Texas — speaking out.

The obvious reality is that we’ll never know exactly what Casey Sheehan, who was ambushed and killed in Sadr City in April 2004, thought about the war. But we do know what Gennaro Pellegrini thought, because he told us. A four-year veteran of the Philadelphia police force, he seemed to know what has eluded the grasp of the Pentagon, that the situation on the ground in Iraq was unworkable.

“This isn’t a war they’re giving us over there — this is policing stuff,” he told us.

Pellegrini was living a happy, normal — actually better than normal — life when he got the phone call in spring 2004 sending him to Iraq, which he took while playing Sony PlayStation with a young nephew inside his row house in Port Richmond. He had just gone 17-1 as an amateur fighter and was training for his first, and only, pro bout at the legendary Blue Horizon in North Philly, which he later won in a 4th round knockout.

“I was mad,” he recalled. Indeed, anyone who wants to romanticize military service should have had a chance to speak with Pellegrini. When I had the chance last November, he said he was already out of shape after his training in Louisiana, and that his fianc?e had left him. But like thousands of other Guard members and reservists sent to war through a backdoor draft, he was a good citizen who did what his government asked of him.

According to a local TV report today, from Iraq, he wrote a letter to students at Hackett Middle School informing them that many Iraqi children had no shoes. The children took his words to heart and collected hundreds of pairs of sandals and flip-flops.

We pray for his soul and for his family. In the ring, Gennaro Pellegrini was nearly unbeaten. But he knew Iraq was the opponent he couldn’t size up, and so this was the bout that he did not want. And now a true contender has been cut down — for good. And for what?

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