Army sergeant drowns on duty

Green Beret Curreri dies in Philippines

October 31, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

Even as a teenager, breaking swimming records at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, Joey Curreri was leaving a mark as deep as his churning wake in the water.

"He was, hands down, the most motivated individual I've ever encountered," said Brad Schertle, a fellow swimmer and longtime friend. "Joey was Michael Phelps before Michael Phelps was."

The Pentagon announced yesterday that Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Curreri, a 27-year-old Green Beret in the Army's Special Forces, drowned last week while serving in the Philippines.

Years before the eruption of the Phelps phenomenon at that same North Baltimore club, Joey Curreri -- who trained with both of Mr. Phelps' older sisters -- was not only setting the standard for high-school-level competitive swimming in Maryland but inspiring a cadre of younger swimmers to follow his example.

"There was a mystique about Joey," said Mr. Schertle, who is four years younger than Sergeant Curreri and who remembers carpooling at age 8 with the older boy to swimming practice at Loyola Blakefield high school, which they later both attended. "Everyone looked at Joe Curreri with awe because of his desire and his work ethic. I wanted to be the next Joe Curreri when I was growing up."

Sergeant Curreri, who grew up in Towson and Parkville and was married in April last year, died Friday in an accident in Siet Lake, near Panamao in the Philippines' mountainous south, the statement from Army Special Forces Command said. Sergeant Curreri, who had joined the military in 2004, was in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group Airborne, based at Fort Lewis, Wash. In his first overseas deployment, he was helping to train Philippine army soldiers in their fight against an insurgency.

"It's very, very honoring to be his dad right now," Frank J. Curreri Jr., deeply affected, said yesterday in response to what he said were numerous messages of condolence from around the country. "I'm just starting to realize how many people he touched. For a man of his size and strength, his compassion and gentleness will floor you."

The elder Mr. Curreri struggled with his composure as he recounted what he understood to be the circumstances of his son's death, which occurred at the conclusion of an arduous, 11-hour scuba training mission. His son, who he said swam "like a dolphin," had "grabbed a snorkel" and jumped back into the water to retrieve some items he had accidentally dropped.

"Somehow he misjudged where they were, and as he was trying to resurface he blacked out," Mr. Curreri said. "He faded back down, and he drowned."

Mr. Curreri said his son's body was being returned to the United States and that funeral arrangements had not been made.

"A piece of my world is gone right now, until I can spiritually recapture it," he said. "This is not a dream."

Sergeant Curreri's widow, Athena Wickam, is an executive with a film production company in Los Angeles. They met at the University of Southern California, where he majored in history and captained the Trojans swimming team in his senior year.

"I don't know where I would be right now if I didn't have so many lovely and kind voice mails and beautiful e-mails to comfort me," Ms. Wickam wrote to friends and relatives yesterday in an e-mail. Her father-in-law described her as "broken."

Sergeant Curreri is also survived by a sister, Shannon Curreri, and his mother, Karen Mittemeyer, both of whom live near Los Angeles; and his stepmother, Tricia Curreri, and stepsister, Angelina, both of Parkville.

At the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, swimming instructor Kathy Lears, whose daughters Jennifer and Erin trained with the young Curreri, remembered him as the "all-American boy who does devilish things but who is really sincere and very concerned with making sure everyone was OK."

When the girls' father died in 2002, Mrs. Lears said, Mr. Curreri "hopped on a plane" in California and returned to Baltimore to see them. "That's kind of how Joey was," she said.

John Cadigan, a coach at the club for 27 years, said Mr. Curreri had "held a number of state swimming records, some of which would probably still be standing if it weren't for that Phelps kid."

At Loyola Blakefield, his coach was Keith Schertle, Brad's father, who said that the young Mr. Curreri founded the school's water polo team in 1997, his senior year.

"He came to me and said, `How about if I find a way to raise the money for the equipment?'" Mr. Schertle recalled. "It was all his idea." To raise the money, Mr. Curreri set up a 100-mile relay swim in the school's pool, using 10 sponsored swimmers. It took about 30 hours.

"We've done that same relay every year since his graduation, usually the day after Thanksgiving, only now it raises money for charities," Mr. Schertle said. "That's his legacy."

As of this year, he said, the event will be named after Joseph F. Curreri.

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