In Memory of Ivica Jerak
Forty years ago on a barebones basketball court in the small village of Debeljak, Croatia, a 7-year-old boy named Ivica could always be found.
He honed his hook shot, strengthened his spin move, and became well known with the local population for being an up-and-coming basketball star.
Today that same outdoor basketball court is the focal point of the whole community. It has a new backboard, a new layer of asphalt, and new lights to allow for community league night play.
It also has a memorial plaque with his name on it.
Since his time playing hoops, Ivica Jerak moved to the United States and became a highly decorated Special Forces Soldier in the U.S. Army, moving up to the rank of master sergeant.
In 2005 he gave his life in the defense of freedom while serving in combat operations in Iraq.
â€œHopefully [these renovations] will somewhat lessen the pain for the community by providing a small reminder of the master sergeant for his service and dedication not only to America but also to Croatia,â€ said John Thomas, the Corps of Engineersâ€™ construction representative for the project.
Through a humanitarian assistance program sponsored by U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) funded the complete renovation of the playground and a nearby elementary school where Master Sgt. Jerak went.
The renovations include the restoration of cracked flooring in four school classrooms, new perimeter fencing around the schoolâ€™s playground and basketball court, new concrete curbs, and the purchasing of sports equipment.
â€œThese renovations will keep Master Sgt. Jerakâ€™s memory in our hearts and improve the lives of the children and the citizens of this great village,â€ said U.S. Special Operations Command Europe commander Maj. Gen. Frank Kisner in his speech at the event.
The $130,000 project managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District was unveiled in a mid-March ceremony attended by Jerakâ€™s wife Hye, his mother Milka, and several dignitaries including the U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Robert Bradtke.
The Municipality of Sukosan, of which Jerakâ€™s hometown of Debeljak is part, intends to make the new playground a focal point of the small community.
In addition to supporting an impoverished community and paying tribute to a fallen Soldier, the humanitarian assistance project â€“ EUCOMâ€™s first in the municipality â€“ nurtured the small communityâ€™s economy by cultivating relationships with several budding construction companies.
This capacity-building is one of the many benefits of the assistance program, which funds more than $20 million in projects throughout Europe annually.
By Justin Ward
US Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District public affairs
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