Fallen soldier's brothers take a stand

When the war in Iraq claims a man's life, it breaks his siblings' hearts. And hardens their resolve.

By Demorris A. Lee, Times Staff Writer
Published August 31, 2007

Matthew Reif and his girlfriend had plans for a really nice dinner. He didn't want to be late, so he dashed for the shower. When the phone rang, he was soaked. He grabbed a towel.

It was his mom. He tried to tell her he had to get back in the shower.

Sit down, she told him.

"Jonathan was killed."

Matthew just sat. He asked how. Then he was quiet for a long time.

Somehow he got dressed, got into his car and headed up I-275 to Safety Harbor, to the house where he and Jonathan and the other brothers grew up.

Jonathan and Matt were stepbrothers, less than a year apart. They'd shared a room, slept 10 feet apart. They had pretend sword fights. Jonathan went to the Army. Matt went to college. Now Pfc. Jonathan Michael Rossi was dead in Baghdad from a single bullet to the base of the skull.

On the interstate, Matt pulled the car over and screamed.

He sat there for a while on the side of the road. Then he pulled out his BlackBerry, blinked away the tears and started searching for a phone number.

At the ranch-style home, a brother chained an American flag to a tree in the front yard, and family began to gather. A picture of Jonathan that called the fallen soldier a friend and a hero was placed on the refrigerator. Peace lilies, white mums and the news media began to arrive.

Matt's mother married Jonathan's father in 1999. Kathi Rossi brought four children to the marriage. Michael Rossi brought three. They had a daughter.

Matt was 13 when the families merged. Jonathan was 12. They would dance on their beds, strumming fake guitars. They would admire and interpret Jonathan's intricate pencil drawings. Late into the night, Matt, Jonathan and younger brother Jason Rossi would talk about life at Countryside High School.

When Jonathan turned 18, he and Matt went shopping for swords. They both loved them. They each bought one and hung them on their bedroom wall. After Jonathan joined the military, he gave Matt his sword for safekeeping.

At the funeral home, family members wore dogs tags that gave Jonathan's name, rank, blood type and Catholic religion. Matt and Jason Rossi, 19, put Jonathan's sword in the dead soldier's folded hands.

They buried Jonathan Michael Rossi, 20, in grave No. 412-1384. It's the same grave as his mother, Myrna Rossi, who died of breast cancer in 1997. Matt spoke for the family. He told stories of a young man who died fighting for his country.

All through the funeral, while he and Jason carried the flag-draped casket to the hearse, and on the ride to the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Matt was keeping something to himself.

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Two days after the burial, Matt called his mother and told her he had something to talk to her about. She could hear distress in his voice. She thought maybe he needed money to get his car fixed or that he was having trouble finding housing for school. Matt would bring dinner.

They sat across from each other outside on the patio. Matt ate a salad and drank a bottle of water.

She wondered about that. Matt was normally a junk food junkie.

That's when he told her he had joined the Army. The day his mother told him about Jonathan's death, he had pulled his car over and called the recruiter on his BlackBerry. The recruiter had told him to go slow; he had just suffered a traumatic loss. But Matt didn't want to wait.

"If I could be half the soldier Jonathan was, then I'll be okay," Matthew said later. "I asked myself, what is the best way that I can contribute to what Jon was doing?"

When he tried to explain it to his mother, she couldn't respond. She sat silent for a while.

Kathi Rossi supports the military. Her father was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, and her grandfather was in the Army during World War II. Jonathan's father Michael Rossi spent 20 years in the Air Force. Her brother-in-law served in the Persian Gulf War.

But she had already given one son. She didn't want to lose another.

She held it together as she watched him finish his salad. He needed her support, whether she liked it or not. When he left, she broke down in tears.

Later, at the house, Matt told his stepdad. Michael Rossi was surprised. The 20-year Air Force veteran wanted to make sure the boy he had raised since age 13 was doing it for the right reasons.

"I was hoping that he was doing it for himself," Rossi said later, "not for guilt or revenge or like he owed it to Jonathan or to us. I got the feeling he was. He's a pretty smart and level-headed guy."

There was no changing Matt's mind.

"I told them that I had actually signed the papers because I didn't want them to talk me out of it," Matt said. "Everyone said I was acting out of emotion."

He hadn't really signed the papers yet, but a few days later, on July 17, he did.

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Matt told administrators and friends at USF of his decision. He would miss the place where he was pursuing a dual degree in business management and marketing. The downtown St. Petersburg campus was where he served as a tour guide for incoming freshmen. He was to start his final year this month.

Matt went on a crash diet to meet the military's weight requirement. He lost 16 pounds in 11 days by giving up his 10 Mountain Dews a day and staying away from takeout food. Matt, now 208 pounds, was headed to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for nine weeks of Army boot camp. After that, he will spend 53 weeks in Monterey, Calif., at the Defense Language Institute. Matt will train to be a linguist. He said he'll likely learn Arabic.

He was given a $28,000 signing bonus in exchange for his five-year commitment.

With just days left before he was to arrive at the Military Entrance Processing Station on Waters Avenue in Tampa, Matt had to get things in order. He sold his furniture and his car. He found out he received two A grades for his summer classes. He withdrew from school.

At a going-away party, friends shaved his head.

On July 26, 15 days after Jonathan Rossi was buried, Matt raised his right hand and repeated after the officer.

"I, Matthew Reif, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States . . ."

Jonathan Rossi's dog tags hung around his neck.

His mother, Kathi, teary-eyed, stood to the side and watched as her eldest son took the oath. Matt had given his sword to her.

She didn't know the half of it.

Her stepson, Jason Rossi, was also keeping something to himself.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 727 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.