Gilroy – Lance Cpl. Jeramy Ailes always took the lead when faced with danger.
The true extent of the young man’s bravery – as well as the story of his final minutes – was revealed this weekend by the soldiers who were at his side when he was killed fighting in Iraq.
Ailes’ band of brothers – the members of the Third Battalion, First Marines, Kilo Company, First Platoon – visited the family’s home Saturday and shared stories about their friend and fellow soldier, the first Gilroyan to die in combat since Vietnam.
Ailes was killed in an ambush toward the end of a week-long campaign in November to wrest control of Fallujah from insurgents loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. military had given Iraqis two months to evacuate the city prior to the invasion. Only those determined to die were left behind, according to the Marines.
From the grim perspective of a soldier, the morning of Nov. 15 had gone well. The four-man “fire teams” had spent three hours going house to house and had killed a number of insurgents. As a team leader, Ailes dictated the protocol for the sweeps and chose to go in first.
“Jeramy wouldn’t let anybody else go in before him,” recalled Lance Cpl. Matt Waters, his bunkmate and best friend.
Waters said Ailes told him he couldn’t live with himself if he let someone else die.
Sgt. Jason Van Hoegarden was there when Ailes was hit.
“As soon as Jeramy entered that house, that’s when all hell broke loose,” he said. “They were waiting for us.”
Ailes was killed in the volley and the Marine behind him was also shot but managed to escape, Van Hoegarden said.
The ensuing firefight lasted 10 to 15 minutes, but the soldiers did not relent until they retrieved Ailes from the house. The fire team then pulled back and bombed the house.
Ailes is the first and only member of the platoon to die. Nineteen others have been discharged for injuries. Of the 20 remaining, three expect to receive discharge papers as a result of injuries, including Waters.
He was shot in his lower left leg on Nov. 18, three days after Ailes’ team was ambushed, and spent his 21st birthday in the hospital.
Having his best friend die and suffering his own injury has changed his way of thinking.
“Most of all you have a greater appreciation for life,” he said. “You learn to appreciate the little things.”
The troops left Iraq in mid-January to return to Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
They are in light training now and suspect they will be redeployed to Iraq in coming months. For the moment, visiting the Ailes provided a needed break from military life – and food.
The family served up barbecued tri-tip steaks and chicken, while the young men chatted with Ailes’ three sisters, mother, father and other family members in their backyard off Fernwood Lane.
They shared a new round of stories about the young man, who was known by friends and family as a prankster with a big heart and a love of the outdoors.
Ailes managed to establish the same reputation among his platoon buddies, in part thanks to a home-made sling-shot – or “wrist rocket.”
“Marines get bored so we do stupid things,” Van Hoegarden said with a grin, explaining how Ailes led the troops in a favorite past-time of harassing Iraqi cows with the sling shot.
“Jeramy really made the time go by fast,” said Lance Cpl. Jason Alustiza, another platoon member.
Friends and fellow Marines eager to console the family shared a wealth of stories about the young man after his death, imparting tales about his childhood pranks, his love of fishing and hunting, and his mania for off-roading in his yellow Volkswagen Bug.
Four months after Ailes’ death, after the oupouring by thousands in the community and across the country, the family continues to cope with their loss.
“You have your good days and bad days,” said Ailes’ father, Joel.
“I might drive down the street and see a yellow bug and tears will come to my eyes. You never know what will bring back the memories.”
A grateful father called the group of 14 marines heroes for bringing home his son, who turned 22 at the beginning of November. Ailes, who was on his second tour of duty in Iraq, was the oldest in the platoon.
“Jeramy was their big brother,” Mr. Ailes said. “They all said he was always doing things to make them smile, make them have fun. These guys really had an admiration for him, which makes me proud.”
Ailes grew up in Morgan Hill until he was 10, when his family moved to Gilroy.
He attended P.A. Walsh Elementary School here. His mother Lana, is a secretary at Barrett Elementary.
Serdar Tumgoren covers City Hall for The Dispatch. Reach him at [email protected] or 847-7109