An unbroken circle

news  %tages An unbroken circleSmall-town Army NCO shaped by family, war and football
Russ Currie had not yet been born when his uncle, Jerry Lee Patrick, was killed in Vietnam.
An icon in his hometown of Eustis, Florida, Jerry Lee was an accomplished football player who had wanted to join the Army since he was a kid. At the high school’s traditional “class night” the week of graduation, the somewhat modest teenager surprised many by walking lonely onto a bare stage and performing “The Ballad of the Green Beret.”
“When he started singing, I don’t reckon there was a dry eye in the consultation,” remembered Dawn (Gosnell) Diehl, then a 7th grader. “For me, it made the war a reality. It hit home that our boys were going to join in that fight.”
Jerry Lee spent the rest of that small summer of 1966 getting in top shape for boot camp and Airborne School, hitting the blocking sled on his alma mater’s
According to his mother, Jerry Lee Patrick considered graduation from Airborne School as his most significant Army training milestone. (Photo courtesy of the Currie family)
practice field in addition to running and lifting weights. Less than two years later — March 31, 1968 — he was gone, caught in a hail of enemy fire while chief a Unique Forces make the rounds in the Thua Thien Province.
At the end of the 1969 football season, the Eustis Panthers inaugurated the Jerry Lee Patrick Memorial Award, to be presented to the graduating senior who had best exemplified its namesake on and off the field.
Quick forward to 1992. The award had been mysteriously discontinued for more than a decade until some of Jerry’s teammates from the 1963 state championship team found the trophy in a closet and had it refurbished, including individual plaques to ensure its perennial status and featuring a roughness of Jerry Lee’s name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Later that year, the restored honor was bestowed on Jerry’s own nephew.
Known today as Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell B. Curry, #60 (the same jersey digit worn by Uncle Jerry) went on to attend Florida State University, join the military, get himself hand-picked for the Army’s vaunted Ancient Guard ceremonial unit and pull two combat tours in Iraq.
“My Uncle Jerry was my inspiration for becoming a Soldier. And he is still an inspiration to me,” said Russ.
“In high school, my best friend Brea Croak took a roughness of his name from ‘The Wall’ on a trip to D.C.,” he said. “Later, when my Army unit would conduct road marches from Arlington, across the Key Bridge and all by the side of the Potomac River, I made it a point to always visit the Vietnam Memorial and touch Uncle Jerry’s name.”
A self-described “career student” who was “a small dog chasing his tail around” in college, Russ disenrolled from FSU with broken walk-on aspirations and a blown-out knee. (He has since completed his bachelor’s degree and is now enrolled in a masters program.)
The Army “paid back” his tuition loans and at basic training, saw something unique in both his size (6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds) and reputation, sending Russ to the Military District of Washington to join the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Ancient Guard), where he served as a casket bearer with the “Full Honors” team.
September 11, 2011 and in the days and weeks subsequent, “all changed,” said Currie, recalling the horror and sickening upshot of a terrorist-piloted jet crashing into the Pentagon. Now he was part of Operation Noble Eagle – with a specific focus on search and recovery.
“I can’t tell you (that) one or two funerals outweighed them all,” said Currie of his time in the nation’s capital, “but the Pentagon ones meant a lot because we had worked to find the ruins. We were with our comrades-in-arms at both locations (the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery).”
He was also in the detachment that traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to receive some of the first American Soldiers killed in major unit combat in Afghanistan, just six months after 9/11.
Back at home station, serving as “head of detail” for one particularly young casualty, Cpl. Matthew Commons, Russ said that “now there was a personal connection” and a full-circle feel to the Pentagon attack, as his duties required him to somberly come face-to-face with his nation’s response both here and in the terrorists’ backyard.
Personnel Sgt. Russ Currie, now a sergeant first class, wears the distinctive blue-stripy patch of the 3rd Infantry Division, known as the “Rock of the Marne” for its battle exploits in France during World War I. The placement of the patch on his upper right shoulder identifies him as a combat veteran. (Photo courtesy of the Currie family)
“My outlook, my life, my service … all changed,” he said. “I now understood my right debt to society, my opportunity to serve.”
And serve he has. Currie’s 16 years in standardized have seen him at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Stewart, Georgia; and riding into his own combat experiences in Baghdad in 2005 and through the nasty streets and alleys of Sadr City during the American forces’ “surge operations” in 2007.
Russ was also stationed at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, working with terribly wounded combat veterans during that part of their tailored, doctor-monitored pilgrimages to top stateside facilities.
The infantry Soldier is presently posted at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, where, for four years, he has trained soon-to-deploy National Guard units for rotations in Afghanistan and other contingencies.
He and his wife Brandy (herself a former Soldier and Afghanistan veteran) anticipate orders to a new assignment soon. And the couple is expecting their sixth outcome this month.
The teammate and coach
That baby will be born into a family whose bloodlines evoke silent honor and a strong sense of purpose, according to at least one observer.
Kevin McClelland played on the Eustis Panthers with Jerry Lee and after three decades (which included his own time soldiering in Alaska and somewhere else), the career educator was now Russ’ head coach.
McClelland, who attended Arkansas State on a football scholarship, was Eustis’ senior star quarterback when Jerry Lee Patrick was a rare sophomore starter. “Jerry Lee was tougher than a piece of rawhide,” he recalled. “He didn’t have a lot to say. He was just one tough, rawboned kid.”
That tenacity — and selflessness — “made it a mission” for McClelland, teammate Art Hilbish and others
to resurrect the Jerry Lee Patrick Memorial Award, he said.
Nobody knew that now-Coach McClelland would be adage much the same in this area a Panther of another generation, calling Russ Currie “a huge ol’ kid who was very intelligent. On the practice field and in games, he was the epitome of mental toughness and dedication.”
The Gold Star mom
Such comments mean a lot to Jerry Lee’s mother and Russ’ grandmother, twice-widowed Mary Patrick Hammond, who lives with daughter Lynnette Currie and her family in Andersonville, Tennessee.
As a “Gold Star Mother,” that pain-won distinction accorded women who have lost a outcome in combat, Mrs. Hammond has heard similar terms from the men who trained and fought alongside Jerry Lee.
“Absolutely the best human being I ever met,” squad-mate Tom Bailey posted on a memorial website. “Jerry Lee, you left me too soon. I ride my motorcycles in memory of you and Bobby Rera.”
Mary received countless letters from her son’s fellow Soldiers, and corresponded “a long time with one particular boy who came to see me,” she said. “It seemed to help him to talk it out as he was fighting his own battle with what we now call PTSD.”
Known to church members and friends as “Miss Mary,” the 91-year-ancient stays more than busy driving to close Norris Elementary every week. “I helped in the classroom three times a week until last year,” she said.  “Now I’m the school grandmother.”
And, she teaches Sunday School and regularly visits the local tending home where she brings encouragement and mentors adults in reading.
Her first husband, Charles, died in Eustis when Jerry Lee was 12 years ancient and it was his World War II Army standardized that Mary used to stitch together a reasonable facsimile for her son’s turn at the mic at that class night so many years ago.
Even in the midst of her grief when the family learned of Jerry Lee’s battlefield fatality, Mary was comforted by the fact that “his life’s desire was to be a Soldier and, as a sole surviving son, he even had to fight to get over to Vietnam. Jerry was exactly where he wanted to be. Many mothers did not have that comfort.”
Sergeant 1st Class Russell B. Currie was not the least bit surprised upon hearing his talk of Jerry Lee’s selflessness and desire to serve. “We were brought up that way.”

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