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AREA TOLL IN IRAQ RISES BY 2 DEAD, 2 WOUNDED

The fight to recapture Fallujah has come at a cost to Western New York.

An Army sergeant from Jamestown was killed Friday in the Iraqi city when he was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, his father confirmed Saturday.

The death of James. C. Matteson, a star football player and 1998 graduate of Southwestern High School in the Southern Tier, came after a similar attack Tuesday shattered the right knee of a staff sergeant from Youngstown.

Both casualties followed the death last Sunday in Baghdad of a soldier from Springville and the serious injury to a soldier from East Aurora a day after that in the city of Ramadi.

As two families turn their attention to the injured, two others have been plunged into mourning.

"We were told that he was fighting gallantly against insurgents in Fallujah," James L. Matteson, of Celoron, said Saturday of his son. "He died a heroic death."

Matteson was known as "J.C." to his friends. He would have turned 24 next week.

"His birthday is on the 22nd. I was getting ready to mail out his birthday card when an Army captain showed up at the door," said Matteson, his voice cracking with emotion.

J. C. Matteson's deployment in Iraq was scheduled to end soon, his father said.

"He only had a couple more months to go. He was due out Feb. 1," he said. "My son paid the ultimate price for freedom."

Matteson was killed during a battle that took place at about 7 a.m. EST Friday.

His death came during a week of fierce and bloody street fighting in Fallujah to retake the city from Islamic militants.

The family has received only sketchy information about Matteson's death, his father said, adding that he's still waiting to learn about the status of his son's remains.

J.C. Matteson enlisted in the Army when he was 17, shortly after graduating from Southwestern. He was a talented and well-liked running back, and his father said he could have easily pursued offers to play college football. But Matteson decided to go into the military to carry on a family tradition that dates back two centuries.

It's a legacy that continues with his sister, Hope Freedom Matteson, who spent 11 months in Iraq with the Army. She is currently stationed in Texas and awaiting redeployment. Her father said he hopes her new assignment keeps her out of combat, noting that one family can only bear so much grief and anxiety.

Matteson also is survived by his mother, Joyce Reynolds of Jamestown, a 5-year-old sister, Michaela Rose Matteson, and two stepbrothers, Nicholas and Brandon Knepshield. As an Army corporal in 2001, Matteson was honored with the NATO and Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals for serving on the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Word of his death devastated students, teachers and alumni at Southwestern High School. Football coach Jay Sirianni said the team learned of the tragedy Friday, the night before the Trojans 12-7 loss to Hornell in a Class B Regional game at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"It was emotional. A couple of our players knew him. We brought our kids in and talked a little bit about this (the) morning before we left, and basically we said -- 'We preach family, and we lost a member of our family.' "

As a tribute to Matteson, each Southwestern player in Saturday's game wore a small, black decal with the number 28 -- Matteson's high school number -- on his helmet. Coaches wore black strips on the back of their baseball caps.

"Sometimes a football team can do a lot of things for a community, or past members or past players, and give them a lot of pride, and we played that game for J.C.," said Sirianni, whose Trojans (9-2) won the first Section VI football title in school history last week. "We knew he had a lot of pride in Southwestern football and I just hope that when he found out that we were sectional champs last week that he just had a smile on his face."

Jamestown does not suffer alone in the region. The past week haw been excruciating for three other local military families as well.

Army Specialist Brian K. Baker of Springville was killed Sunday in Baghdad after a vehicle pulled up next to him in Baghdad and exploded.

Cpl. Mark P. O'Brien, 21, of East Aurora lost his right arm and right leg Monday when a rocket crashed into the right side of his military vehicle in the city of Ramadi.

In the building-to-building fighting in Fallujah on Tuesday, scout sniper Caylen Wojcik watched a rocket-propelled grenade head straight for him.

Seconds later, shrapnel shattered his right knee.

"He saw it coming," said his uncle, Martin Wojcik, a retired Marine. "He said it felt like someone hit his knee with a baseball bat."

Wojcik, 25, a graduate of Lewiston-Porter High School, is safe now, hospitalized in Germany. He's expected to fly today or tomorrow to a military hospital in San Diego, where doctors will surgically reconstruct his right knee.

Wojcik's picture appeared on the front page of The Buffalo News Thursday as part of an Associated Press photo of a wounded but unidentified Marine being rushed to a helicopter from a hospital in Baghdad.

"That was him," said his grandmother, Eugenia Wojcik. "I had to break out my magnifying glass but that was definitely him."

Wojcik, a Marine since the age of 18, was in the heart of the fighting in Fallujah, leading a "scout sniper" team made up of four or five Marines.

Their job was to scout insurgent strongholds before other U.S. troops followed, making them the first to encounter the sniper fire, booby traps and road bombs that typified the battle for Fallujah.

"He's out in front of the front lines," said his Uncle Martin, who spoke with him Saturday. "He's right out there in the middle of it."

Despite his own wounds, Wojcik has been more concerned about the men under his command, the men he left behind in Fallujah, said his father, Edward, who talks to him daily now.

"Leaving, that was the hardest thing for him," said his father. "That's just the way they (Marines) are. They all look out for each other. They take care of each other."

Wojcik, who is married and lives at Camp Pendleton in California, wants to stay in the Marines and will ask his doctors to do everything possible to return his knee to full use so he can make the Marines his career.

"He's in good spirits," said Martin Wojcik. "He said he and his buddies in the hospital are on the nurse's case about getting them some German chocolate."

For now, his family in Youngstown -- owners of the historic Ontario House inn and tavern -- is awaiting word of his return to the U.S.

"What can I say, we're so proud of him," said his father. "

News Sports Reporter Keith McShea contributed to this story

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com
e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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