A life taken in Iraq, a job left unfinished

Family and friends of a security worker killed in attacks support the U.S. operation even as they mourn his death

April 03, 2004|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WILLOUGHBY, Ohio - To this tidy suburb came news reports from halfway around the world that revealed that one of the four contractors brutally murdered and mutilated by anti-American militants in Fallujah, Iraq, was Danica and Jozo's son, Joe's neighbor, and John and Frank's former student.

And yet, for all the personal horror over one of their own dying so unspeakably, Jerry Zovko's family and friends want what he started finished.

"He would just hug me and say, `Mom, I am needed. I have to go there. I can make a difference,'" Danica Zovko said yesterday, recalling her efforts to persuade her son not to go to Iraq as part of a private security detail. "We need to stay united. We need to support our troops. We started something that needs to be done."

Her 32-year-old son was an Army Ranger turned private security operative, one of four employees of the North Carolina-based Blackwater Security Consulting whose deaths highlighted the increasing role and danger that such personnel face side by side with soldiers in the world's hot spots.

With her family gathered around her, Zovko spoke yesterday of the dual role she finds herself in - the mother grieving her lost son and the patriot who staunchly supports the increasingly dangerous mission even though it robbed her of her eldest son.

She and her husband, Jozo - they also use the Americanized versions of their names, Donna and Joe - are immigrants from Croatia who own an auto body shop in nearby Cleveland.

Even as her family shields her from news reports of the attack, Danica Zovko can't help but want to know more about it, particularly who those attackers were and who raised them to feel such hate.

"I would want to know. I would want to see, just as a mother who has given birth to a son, why would she [an attacker's mother] be any different from me, or any other mother?" Zovko said. "Does she have no heart?"

In these aging suburbs northeast of Cleveland, where a wet and wintry wind whips off Lake Erie even as spring bulbs begin to push through the ground, a sense of loss pervades the air. Croatians and other Eastern Europeans make up a significant part of the population in these parts, and the pictures in the paper of Jerry Zovko seem so very familiar.

New resolve

For those who did know him, the death comes in such shocking contrast to their image of this strapping, upbeat, savvy man.

"He was the elite of the elite," said Joe Tekavic, a retiree in nearby Euclid, where the Cleveland-born Zovko was raised. "I heard the news, but I just didn't think it would be him. You would never think he would be cut down in that fashion."

The Zovkos - who have another son, Tom, 30 - lived a couple of doors down from Tekavic before moving to their apartment in Willoughby.

In their old neighborhood, just down the block from Euclid High School, from which Jerry Zovko graduated in 1990, friends balanced their sadness about the loss with ever-stronger resolve that U.S. forces remain in Iraq despite the increasing danger.

"I think it would have been worse if we hadn't been there," said Donna Morgan, who lives across the street from the Zovkos' former home. "You have to clean things up. You can't just leave, pull out and leave things to go amok."

A student remembered

At the high school, the news of Zovko's death added more shadows to a gray, rainy day.

"There was just dead silence," said John Gibbons, a coach at the school, of the reaction to the announcement over the school's closed-circuit television that Zovko was among the four attacked by the Fallujah mob. "I think it's just the realization that these people they're talking about being killed in Iraq are real. Over the past year, you hear so-and-so has died in Iraq, but when it's someone you know, it hits home."

Gibbons, a 20-year veteran of the school, was Zovko's soccer coach. Like many of the other students of Croatian descent here, Zovko loved the sport.

"He was an average player, but he was one of the kids who enjoyed himself all the time," Gibbons said. "He was there to have fun."

Science teacher Frank Soltesz Jr., who made yesterday's sad announcement, similarly remembered Zovko's cheerful presence.

"There are certain students you remember," said Soltesz, who has taught at Euclid High for 33 years. "He was always energetic. The thing about Jerry was his smile."

The school's 1990 yearbook shows him as a slight, towheaded boy with, indeed, a toothy grin. Those who knew him as a youngster were stunned when, in his 20s he turned into a strapping young man of 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds.

"I was always so impressed with him, his knowledge and his will to succeed," said Tekavic, whose children were friends of Zovko's. "He was very dedicated as a soldier and proud to be an American."

After high school, Zovko attended college briefly but was inspired to join the Army after a visit to the war-torn land of his parents, his mother said. He joined the elite Rangers unit and served overseas until his discharge in 2001.

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