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MILITARY DEATHS

Army Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Curreri, 27, Los Angeles; drowns in the Philippines

November 04, 2007|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Curreri, a former captain of the USC swim team and a scholastic All-American in high school, drowned in an off-duty accident while serving as a Green Beret with the Army Special Forces in the Philippines. He was 27.

The death of the highly trained soldier and distinguished diver has stunned and perplexed his family, friends and fellow soldiers, who will gather later this week at various private memorials.

Although the investigation is incomplete, Curreri's family and friends said he apparently drowned Oct. 26 while free-diving alone with a mask and fins to retrieve a USC medallion and St. Christopher medal that had slipped off during official diving maneuvers and settled to the bottom of Siet Lake on Jolo Island.

"He didn't want to disappoint those who had given him the medallion and the medal," said his mother, Karen Curreri of Redondo Beach.

Although details remain unclear, she said initial results from an autopsy and other evidence point to a phenomenon called shallow-water blackout that has stricken even the most expert divers and swimmers.

"It's just a freak thing for this Green Beret, so highly skilled and highly trained and in such great shape," she said. "He could hold his breath for four minutes and was very proud of that."

Born and reared in the suburbs of Baltimore, Curreri became a Civil War buff at an early age and a record-breaking swimmer. When he was 14, he swam across Chesapeake Bay and also founded the water polo team at his high school, the Jesuit-run Loyola Blakefield.

Coaches from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and elsewhere urged him to join their swim teams, but he fell in love with USC on a recruiting trip, his mother said.

"He was a dedicated Trojan," she said.

His Army buddies, some from competing colleges around the country, recounted how he would devilishly subject them to his singing of the USC fight song.

On the USC swim team, he was a member of a four-man relay team that took first place in the 800-meter freestyle at the U.S. Spring Nationals in 1999.

He qualified for the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials and was voted captain of the swim team for the first half of his senior year.

"He was a great competitor and one of the more popular guys on the team," said Mark Schubert, USC's former head swim coach and now in charge of USA Swimming, the program that trains the U.S. Olympic team. "He was admired by everybody, with his work ethic and his spirit. He was always one of those guys who cared more about his teammates than he did about himself."

Curreri's best friend at USC, two-time Olympic silver medalist Erik Vendt, described him this way: "I consider Joe to be the brother I never had. He was the most passionate, unbelievably loyal man I've ever met. Guys like him don't come around very often."

At 6 feet 1, heavily muscled, with blue eyes and sandy blond hair, Curreri was known for his unconstrained bear hugs for family and friends. His passion extended to matters of the mind and affairs of the heart.

About 18 months ago, he married fellow USC graduate Athena Wickham, now an executive in a Los Angeles film production company.

"For fun, he read history books and Russian literature," his wife said. "That was his idea of a good time."

Curreri was planning to pursue a doctorate in history after completing his military service, with the aim of teaching U.S. history to the next generation.

"I'm luckier than most people [to] have something like him in my life for the past 5 1/2 years," his wife said. "I considered myself lucky to have been loved this much."

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks deeply affected Curreri while he was at USC, according to his friends and family.

His longtime interest in war history and public service propelled him to attempt to join the Navy. He wanted to become a Navy SEAL, to make use of his skills as a waterman, but was rejected because of an old back injury from weightlifting in college.

After graduating from USC in 2002, he worked briefly as a corporate recruiter and history tutor, and decided to appeal his medical disqualification.

Curreri took his case directly to Army Surgeon General James Peake, who granted him a medical waiver, family members said.

Instead of opting for officer school, an option available as a university graduate, Curreri decided to enlist so he could work his way into the Army's elite Special Forces.

In an essay titled "Why I wish to become a Green Beret," Curreri quoted President Kennedy about the few granted the role of defending freedom in the hour of maximum danger.

"When my children ask me what I did to avenge the assault of September 11th, I shall be able to look them in the eye, without a hint of hesitation, and respond that I answered the call of our nation," he wrote.

Curreri joined the Army in 2004 and was assigned as a Special Forces communications sergeant with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Ft. Lewis, Wash.

He was part of a group helping to train Philippine government troops fighting Islamic militants in the nation's southern islands and was due to return to the United States with his group Nov. 8.

In addition to his wife and mother, Curreri is survived by his father, Frank, of Carney, Md.; his stepmother, Tricia; and two sisters, Shannon Trevino of Laguna Beach and Angelina Curreri of Carney, Md.

The family asks that any donations be made to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation -- www.specialops.org -- which provides scholarships and counseling to children of fallen military personnel.

--

ken.weiss@latimes.com

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