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Bearing war's sacrifice

Three graduates of a Torrance high school have been killed in combat. Students, staff and community try to cope with the emotional fallout.

January 29, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Army 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara's death in eastern Afghanistan was especially harsh for South High School in Torrance: He was the school's third graduate killed in the line of duty in less than a year.

Ferrara, 24, was a high school track star. Army Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr. and Army Spc. Micah Gifford were driven competitors on the football field.

Now, the serene campus of red-brick classrooms and pine trees just off Pacific Coast Highway is navigating through an emotional transformation marked by tearful vigils and poignant special announcements, such as one delivered in September -- two months before Ferrara's death -- by Principal Scott McDowell at the first football game of the season.

He spoke about Anzack, 20, and Gifford, 27.

"It is a rare thing for a school to retire a jersey," he told the estimated 5,000 people in attendance. "Tonight we do it not for the talent Micah and Joe displayed on the field, nor for the impact they had on others as students. Tonight we retire their jerseys for the examples they set as men, and for the price they paid in service to the school, community and country."

The green jerseys -- No. 52 for Anzack and No. 65 for Gifford -- were framed and hung high on a wall in the school gymnasium. Ferrara's cross-country track shirt will take its place on the wall later this year.

In an interview in his office, McDowell said, "Every school has alumni in the military. It's a fluke that we've lost three.

"The impact? It's made foreign affairs, and the price of war, real for our students. For us, it's real bullets, real friends, real losses of people who had real families. Our students aren't as flippant about the war in the Middle East as they might have been. They understand it's a complex issue."

Judging from the chatter at a local Starbucks, where students gather after school to vent, flirt and smoke, some are grappling with their first education in mortality.

Michael Taylor, 16, a South High junior with a blond mohawk who wears baggy black clothes and a class ring, said, "It's a lot to handle for one school. As a teenager, I think it sucks. But it's our life. It's real to us."

"They were all heroes, dude," said Patrick Scheliga, 17, a junior with spiked black hair and white-framed sunglasses. "I'm going to join the Army -- all the more reason to do it."

Anzack, Ferrara and Gifford did not know each other. Gifford was in the class of 1997. Ferrara graduated in 2001 and Anzack four years later.

Their lives as servicemen first came into sharp focus last April when rumors that Anzack had been killed in action in Baghdad prompted South High students to post a sign outside the campus that read: "In Loving Memory -- Joe Anzack -- Class of 2005."

Anzack dispelled the rumors with a call home. "Hey, Dad, it's me." He later posted a message on his page: "im not dead. im still kickin."

Rose DeSanto, a South High English teacher who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, recalled, "A lot of students who knew Joe Anzack were upset and crying in class because of the confusion over his condition.

"I spoke privately with those students; then we moved on," she said.

Then, in early May, military officials announced that Anzack and two other soldiers were missing. On May 23, military officials delivered the rough news to Anzack's family: His body was found floating in the Euphrates River about two weeks after his unit was ambushed while on patrol near Baghdad.

Anzack's bewildered family members found themselves fielding dozens of condolence calls from complete strangers. Some students erected a memorial of flowers and candles to their friend on the steps of South High's main entrance.

The circumstances of Anzack's death, brought renewed attention to Gifford, who died Dec. 7, 2006, when an improvised bomb exploded while he was on patrol in Baghdad.

In November, Ferrara's mother, Linda, noticed Anzack's and Gifford's names and jersey numbers painted on a wall behind the school's stadium. "I flashed this thought: 'At least Matty is in Afghanistan and not Iraq,' " she recalled.

Always an athletic and academic standout, Ferrara was the third-born of five children. He ran cross-country and scored 1,580 out of 1,600 on his SAT. He went on to graduate from West Point, where he majored in economics and Mandarin.

Ferrara was among six servicemen who were killed in an ambush Nov. 9 while leading a NATO force whose goal was to help stabilize and reconstruct war-torn eastern Afghanistan. Ferrara, who had been recommended for a Silver Star after a battle in August, was posthumously promoted to captain.

The attack claimed the lives of two other Californians, Sean K.A. Langevin of Walnut Creek and another Torrance resident, Lester G. Roque. Both were corporals, both 23.

Langevin died in the attack and Roque a day later. Roque, who did not attend South High, was a native of the Philippines. His death made news in the Philippines and a TV news crew's interview of his wife is still seen on

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