Former Army Cpl. Simon M. Benkovic had been out of the Army less than three months when he was killed in a wreck.
EAST LAKE - For months, the Benkovic family prayed that their son and brother would return safe from Iraq.
Across an ocean, Army Cpl. Simon M. Benkovic survived near-daily mortar fire, gun fights and hand-to-hand combat with Iraqi insurgents. He was even stabbed in the back during one battle.
But his family's prayers were answered. After six months with the Fourth Infantry Division, Benkovic called his family last October. He was in Maine.
He was coming home.
"It was such a relief," said his father, Anthony Benkovic. "To have him back in the States, you felt he was safe."
Then, early Saturday morning, Benkovic's pickup truck jumped a median and hit a tree in East Lake. His head struck the tree. He was flown to Bayfront Medical Center, where doctors pronounced him dead.
He was 25, and less than three months out of the Army.
"We're firm believers in our faith and there must be a greater purpose," said his older sister, 28-year-old Jessica Benkovic Colon. "But there's no explaining this."
Benkovic was alone in his Ford pickup truck in the East Lake Woodlands subdivision early Saturday morning when he lost control and hit a concrete median, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
As the truck swerved toward the side of the road, Benkovic, who was not wearing a seat belt, was partially ejected from an open window. He died an hour later.
Troopers say they do not know yet what caused Saturday's accident.
The second of three children, Benkovic was born and raised in Pinellas County and attended East Lake High School. In 2001, he followed the footsteps of his father and volunteered to join the Army.
Anthony Benkovic served in the Army during Vietnam. Other family members, including two great uncles and a grandfather, served in World War II.
"He thought it was his turn," said Anthony Benkovic, 56.
In the military, family members say Benkovic excelled.
After 14 months near Korea's demilitarized zone and training at a Colorado Army base, Benkovic entered Iraq last April.
During his six-month tour there, Benkovic saw action in Baghdad, Tikrit and other cities. His unit was involved in a half-dozen fire fights and took part in countless missions to find Saddam Hussein and other top Iraqi officials. While in Iraq, he was promoted to corporal and charged with the care of a handful of soldiers. That group took mortar fire daily and slept two to three hours a night, if at all, Benkovic's family said.
On one mission Benkovic was stabbed in his lower back by an Iraqi insurgent. He never told his family, even after he returned home, his sister said.
"He was just walking around with his shirt off, and I saw this scar," Jessica Benkovic Colon said. "He didn't want us to worry."
For his courage, Benkovic was awarded five Army Commendation Medals - an honor nearly as prestigious as the Bronze Star - along with his promotion.
In October, Benkovic was shipped back to Colorado, where he finished his three-year commitment.
After he was honorably discharged in January, Benkovic returned to Florida with hopes of one day running a golf course. Before joining the military, Benkovic worked as a supervisor at Tarpon Woods Country Club in East Lake, where his family owned a home.
He told a bartender and good friend there, 23-year-old Kathleen McCarter, that he wanted to eventually own the club.
Flags at the entrance of the course were lowered to half-staff Monday in Benkovic's memory.
"It's really weird to sit here," said McCarter, who had known Benkovic since she was 4. "I keep looking for him to walk in the door. He'd be here every day.
"He always said, "If I made it home from Iraq, I could make it home from anything."'
A member of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor, Simon M. Benkovic is survived by his parents Johnnette and Anthony Benkovic, of Palm Harbor; two sisters, Jessica Benkovic Colon, of Houston and Thea J. Benkovic, of Palm Harbor; grandparents Johnnette and Willis Simon, of Palm Harbor; an aunt, three cousins and two great-aunts.
A viewing will be from 2 to 6 p.m. today, at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church, 2405 Philippe Parkway, Safety Harbor. The funeral Mass will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the church and burial services will follow at Curlew Hills Memorial Gardens, 1717 Curlew Road, Palm Harbor. In lieu of flowers, the family requests tax-deductible donations be made to Living His Life Abundantly International. Donations can be sent to 325 Scarlet Blvd., Oldsmar, FL, 34677, or made over the phone at 1-800-558-5452.