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Thomas Gifford hold a photo of his son, Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan Gifford, who was killed in Afghanistan on July 29. (Tim Shortt / Florida Today)
It has been tradition for the family to go a Yankees vs. Red Sox game each season.
"He had tickets to go this year," said his father, Thomas Gifford. "We'll still try to take the boys. I guess that's what he would have wanted."
Jonathan Gifford, who was serving with the 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, was about a month away from returning home from an eight-month deployment when he and another Marine were killed July 29 while on patrol in Afghanistan.
Gifford, 34, of Palm Bay, was a father of five boys the oldest 8 years old and the youngest 5 months, a baby he never held. He also leaves behind his wife, Lesa. They live in North Carolina.
The Marine Corps said Gifford and Gunnery Sgt. Daniel J. Price, of Holland, Mich., died during a patrol in Badghis province. No further details were made available.
"He never got to hold him," his father said of the baby, pausing to fight back tears. "His wife and the boys are the priority now. They are the ones we need to look after."
Gifford was an instructor since 2006 with the Marine Special Operations School at Camp Lejeune, N.C. He had been in the Marines for 15 years. He graduated from Melbourne Central Catholic High, where he played soccer and baseball. Following graduation in 1995, Gifford joined the soccer team and received a full scholarship to Saint Leo College. He left college to join the Marines.
"He came home one day and said, ‘Dad, I joined the Marines," said his father, who served in the Army between 1968 and 1971. "He said, ‘Dad, I just want to earn some respect.'"
Thomas Gifford said that after hearing from his son's fellow Marines, he knew he had gained the respect in and out of the service.
"It wasn't until I got with his men that I knew the kind of man he was," Gifford said. "He would do anything for others."
Jonathan Gifford deployed several times and earned a Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with combat "V," for valor. He entered the Marine Corps in 1996 and briefly left in 2001 but re-entered and was assigned to 2nd Force Recon, a Marine official said. He deployed to Iraq and was promoted to staff sergeant during that tour. This was his second deployment in the war in Afghanistan.
It was not a surprise to his father and to others that he would excel in the military. He showed his inventiveness and ability to solve problems at a young age. He would take apart machinery to fix it. He helped his father build sheds in the backyard and remodel their Palm Bay home, where the family has lived since 1985.
"He had the ability to fix almost anything," his father said. "He had a tremendous mind. He had a gifted mind."
Melbourne Central Catholic baseball coach Tom Dooley said Gifford was tough, competitive and a good student. He said he was everything anyone would want to see in a young man.
Before MCC, Gifford grew up playing Little League and also played American Legion baseball. The family used to have a batting cage in the backyard.
Faiz Shakir, who played shortstop after Gifford left MCC, met him at alumni functions.
"As someone who followed in the legacy of Jon Gifford at MCC baseball, I knew him to be a very talented, disciplined, and fierce competitor," said Shakir, who now lives in Washington, D.C. "Everyone on the team had a favorite story of a gritty Jon Gifford performance on the diamond, often punctuated by a description of him as fearless. He was at his best when he felt the challenge was greatest."
Thomas Gifford said he and his family appreciate the kind words since his son's death.
"The support we've gotten is heartwarming," Thomas Gifford said. "We appreciate it greatly. It's a tremendous loss."
Gifford said he wants to encourage people to continue to support the troops and their families and to realize the sacrifices they are making daily for the nation.
"These men and women are volunteers," he said. "Some of them are going over there four, five and six times," he said. "Their families give up so much for the love of their country."
Gifford's funeral will be at 9 a.m. Thursday at Arlington National Cemetery.