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Jewish SA expat killed in Afghanistan “didn’t die in vain”



Recent events in Afghanistan may seem like a million miles away, but the story of the late Private Gregory “Greg” Sher brings them a lot closer to home. Born in 1978 to a Jewish family in Johannesburg, Sher was killed in the early days of 2009 while fighting the Taliban.

Although his family emigrated to Australia in 1986, his legacy lives on in South Africa, and recent events have opened old wounds for family and friends here and around the world.

“The past few days have brought up a lot of memories,” says Mandy Strimling from Johannesburg. Strimling met Sher when she visited Australia on holiday, and his welcoming personality meant that they became good friends.

“The people trying to flee Afghanistan now are running away from the same regime that Greg fought against. He was there to help these same people. So for those who knew and loved Greg, it’s definitely opened old wounds.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in Melbourne, Sher’s father, Felix Sher, says that his son didn’t die in vain. “I understand that as a consequence of current events in Afghanistan, you might be thinking of all those soldiers who sacrificed their lives and their families. It’s not all negative however. An entire generation of women have been educated, Bin Laden was dispensed with, Al Qaeda was weakened, and much infrastructure, including schools and hospitals were built. The Taliban aren’t really united and cohesive as a whole. They may fragment when in power due to tribalism. Hopefully, the zealots will be contained, and some conservative common sense will prevail.”

Says his mother, Yvonne, “The Almighty might have decided to take Gregory in the most common way – accident, illness, or murder. But he chose the most honourable way. As a soldier sacrificing his life to do good.”

The second-born of their three sons, Sher’s passion for service and protection began at a young age. In a “last post” account of his life written by historian Aaron Pegram, which was made into a film at the Australian War Memorial, Pegram describes how “his love of Yiddishkeit earned him the enduring love and respect of all who knew him”.

“After leaving school, Greg worked for his father in the finance business, and at 19, he joined the Community Security Group, a professional security team that oversees the protection of Jewish schools, synagogues, and special Jewish events. Greg was, in every respect, a pillar of Melbourne’s Jewish community.

“Greg possessed an interest in soldiering at a very early age,” the account continues. “In 1998, he joined the Army Reserve and became a part-time rifleman. In November 2002, Greg was among a rifle company of army reservists deployed to East Timor to address the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the region. On his return to Australia, Greg successfully qualified as a member of the Special Forces.

“He transferred to the 1st Commando Regiment in Melbourne, a part-time unit which enabled him to continue his involvement in the Community Security Group. It was around this time that Greg met his partner, Karen.

“In November 2008, Greg’s regiment deployed to Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan – the first deployment of an Army Reserve force on combat operations since World War II. Greg and his unit provided security for the Afghan population in areas controlled by Taliban insurgents. Not wishing to cause his family any concern, Greg had told his parents he was off on a lengthy training exercise.

“It was on one such operation around midday on 4 January 2009, that Taliban insurgents fired rockets into the compound where Greg and other members of the task group were resting before heading out on patrol. One of the rockets struck Greg before detonating on the perimeter wall of the patrol base behind him. Greg was killed instantly.”

The account describes Sher as “a highly skilled and experienced soldier. His comrades affectionately knew him as ‘the super Jew’. At the ramp [send-off] ceremony in Afghanistan, Greg’s brothers in arms had a Star of David made for him to lie under [instead of a cross, as the ceremony began in a chapel].”

When Australia left Afghanistan in 2014, “I asked if I could have that Magen David,” says Felix. “It was sent to me, and it now hangs in the shul of the cemetery where Greg is buried.”

Reflecting back on the ramp ceremony, he recalls that a number of Afghans asked to be there. “They signed an Afghan flag which they sent back with him. He really connected to people.”

Yvonne shares a story that brings this home. “When he was teaching Afghan soldiers how to use a new weapon, they were calling him ‘Mr Greg’. And when Greg left, the captain, who was there, said to the soldiers, ‘Did you know Mr Greg is Jewish?’ They said, ‘No, we’ve never met a Jewish person in our lives’, and ‘Wow, this is special, if this is what Jewish people are about.’”

Sher’s body was returned to Australia, where he was buried with full military honours in a traditional Jewish funeral at Melbourne’s Chevrah Kadisha Cemetery at Lyndhurst. He was 30 years old.

The Shers didn’t even know their son was in Afghanistan, and were awoken at 03:00 while on holiday, by their son, Barry, breaking the news to them. They had to rush home in the middle of the night, where they were met by the military. While it has taken them time to come to terms with his death, they are grateful that he has been honoured in many capacities and that their government continues to engage with them as a military family.

“He loved the military, he loved adventure. He called himself ‘a protector’,” says Felix. “What really drove him was hearing that the Taliban was throwing acid in the faces of young girls going to school, and the harsh treatment of women.”

For Strimling, hearing that Sher had passed away at such a young age and in such circumstances “was surreal and hard to come to terms with. He was almost larger than life.”

While her friend has been honoured in many capacities, Strimling wanted to bring his legacy back home to where it all began. He attended Glenhazel Primary in South Africa, so she decided to donate a trophy to the school in his honour. The Greg Sher Remembrance Trophy for community service and helping others is given out every year. “It’s given to a child who shows up and does what Greg would have done, exemplifying what he stood for,” she says.

Strimling believes that Sher’s connection to this country remains strong. “He still has family here. But he’s connected in other ways too. I was involved in a really bad car accident about a year after he passed. The paramedic told me that I shouldn’t be alive. But I had a photo of Greg in my wallet, and I saw it as a sign that he was protecting me.”

She says death in such a faraway place has made her realise “how connected everyone is in spite of so much distance”. In light of recent events, she says, “I don’t think he died in vain. His death holds meaning. He was given a task, and he completed his mission. He wouldn’t see it as a sacrifice but as a service.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Dinky

    Aug 28, 2021 at 5:01 am

    Beautiful article

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