A rare boast from father, a retired Marine
Beverly son commands unit in Afghanistan

By David Filipov, Globe Staff | October 4, 2008

BEVERLY - Marines run in the family of John "Jake" Petronzio, a former Marine drill instructor who fought in Korea and Vietnam and retired as a captain. His nephew, Nick, is a recently retired Marine colonel who served in Iraq. His nephew's son, Daniel, a Marine second lieutenant, is in Iraq.

And then there is his son, Peter, 47, a Marine colonel who commands the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a force of 2,500 that recently drove insurgents from a parched and dangerous insurgent stronghold in southern Afghanistan.

Jake Petronzio, 76, had to search for Peter's official Marine portrait in the cozy clutter of the Beverly home he shares with his daughter and three granddaughters. He beamed when he found it.

"I'm very proud of what he has accomplished," the father said. It's a pride that shines through the innate reserve of a man who prefers to speak about his own accomplishments in workmanlike aphorisms: "I don't toot my own horn." "I did the job I got paid for." "I was a journeyman who got the most out of my abilities."

Of his son he said: "He did the job he got paid for."

That's boasting for Jake Petronzio.

Peter Petronzio's unit was originally assigned to a mission to secure roads in Garmsir District, a strip of mudbrick walls, dusty brush, and makeshift outdoor bazaars that line the Helmand River, the source of life for the 78,000 inhabitants of a region largely bordered by desert. It was supposed to take five to seven days. That was in March. The Taliban decided to fight. Chasing them out ended up taking more than 130 days, including 30 days of daily battles in July and the tense work of searching out the weapons caches and roadside bombs the retreating insurgents left behind.

On Sept. 10, Colonel Petronzio turned over security in the area to British and Afghan national army forces. It was a victory in a war that has become more dangerous for American troops than Iraq, at a time when US commanders are calling for more troops and military analysts are raising questions about the strategy of the war.

"Somewhere along the line we decided we are trying to pacify the place," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think tank based in Alexandria, Va. "We are trying to pacify a people who do not wish to be pacified."

"That is not to say that it is futile," Pike continued, adding that missions such as Petronzio's are a way to protect whatever civil society has emerged since 2001 until the Afghan national army is up to the task.

Colonel Petronzio's comments as he handed over control of the district to British and Afghan forces seemed to reflect this view.

"We are not going to solve all the problems with 2,500 Marines for seven or eight months, but what we can do is eat this elephant one bite at time, and we took a big bite, and we did some great things in Garmsir. And for the people there it will be a lasting, lasting success," Petronzio said, according to Marine Corps News.

Jake Petronzio doesn't want to discuss the politics of his son's mission.

"He's the commanding officer. He's doing the job to the best of his ability; he doesn't need me looking over his shoulder," Jake said.

Sitting on a couch in a small den, his beagle, Jasper, at his side, Jake recalled how Peter grew up on Marine bases - Parris Island, S.C., Camp Lejeune, N.C. - until Jake retired in 1970 and returned to Beverly. He worked in construction. His son played hockey for Beverly High - "he was a good journeyman," said Jake - and went straight to the Marines after graduating Norwich University.

Peter embarked on a career that included special operations training in undersea diving - "they take you out a fantastic number of miles, drop you off in the ocean, and say 'see you on shore,' " Jake said - Air Force pararescue - "a grueling, grueling course" - and free fall parachuting - "they can pick out your house and land on your roof."

Counternarcotics missions in Asia, six months in Kosovo, and command of the Second Force Reconnaissance Company on operations against insurgent groups in western Iraq led to Peter's appointment as commander of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2006, based in Camp Lejeune. Jake visits Peter Petronzio's wife and three children there whenever he can drive his blue pickup.

He saw his son before he shipped out in March. He will see him again in November when Peter's unit returns.

Until then, Jake won't write. He doesn't do e-mail. That's not because he is unconcerned about his son's well-being. He thinks about him and recalls his own service during wartime.

"I'm from the old school," Jake said. "We used to write a letter, we were lucky if it got home."

Family will stay in touch with Peter and let Jake know his son is all right. He knows his son will not call him to talk about his successes.

"You don't toot your own horn," Jake said. "That's the way Peter was raised."

Petronzio paused. A quiet descended over the cozy house cluttered with granddaughters' guitars, field hockey schedules, and pictures of happy children riding horses.

That's when Jake Petronzio repeated something any son would want to hear again and again from his father: "I am very, very, proud of him."

And then he said something any Marine officer would want to hear from a drill instructor: "I would feel very comfortable serving under him."

David Filipov can be reached at dfilipov@globe.com.