Small-Town Army NCO Shaped by Family, War and Football

Flag reflects on Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The American flag is reflected in some of the 58,307 names etched into "The Wall" of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., July 22, 2015. (Sgt. Ken Scar/U.S. Army)

FORT MEADE, Md. -- 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, Patrick 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 reserved teenager surprised many by walking alone onto a bare stage and performing "The Ballad of the Green Beret."

"When he started singing, I don't think there was a dry eye in the audience," remembered Dawn [Gosnell] Diehl, then a seventh grader. "For me, it made the war a reality. It hit home that our boys were going to join in that fight."

Patrick spent the rest of that short summer of 1966 getting in top shape for boot camp and airborne school, hitting the blocking sled on his alma mater's 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 leading a special forces patrol in Thua Thien Province.

At the end of the 1969 football season, the Eustis Panthers created the Jerry Lee Patrick Memorial Award to be presented to the graduating senior who best exemplified its namesake on and off the field.

Fast 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 rubbing of Patrick's name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Later that year, the restored honor was bestowed on Jerry's nephew.

Known today as Army Sgt. 1st Class Russell B. Currie, No. 60 (the same jersey number worn by Uncle Jerry) went on to attend Florida State University, join the military, get himself handpicked for the Army's vaunted Old 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," Currie said.

"In high school, my best friend Brea Croak took a rubbing of his name from 'the Wall' on a trip to D.C. Later, when my Army unit would conduct road marches from Arlington, across the Key Bridge and all along 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 little dog chasing his tail around" in college, Currie disenrolled from FSU with broken walk-on aspirations and a blown-out knee. He has since completed his bachelor's degree and is enrolled in a master's program.

The Army "paid back" his tuition loans and saw something special in both his size (6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds) and character at basic training, sending Currie to the Military District of Washington to join the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), where he served as a casket bearer with the "Full Honors" team.

In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, "everything changed," said Currie, recalling the horror and sickening aftermath of a terrorist-piloted airliner 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 remains. 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, Currie served as "head of detail" for one particularly young casualty, Cpl. Matthew Commons. Currie said "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.

"My outlook, my life, my service ... everything changed," he said. "I now understood my true debt to society, my opportunity to serve."

And serve he has. Currie's 16 years in uniform have seen him on 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.

Currie also was stationed at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, working with badly wounded combat veterans during that portion of their tailored, doctor-monitored pilgrimages to top stateside facilities.

The infantry soldier is posted presently 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 child this month.

The Teammate and Coach

That baby will be born into a family whose bloodlines evoke quiet honor and a strong sense of purpose, according to at least one observer.

Kevin McClelland played on the Eustis Panthers with Patrick, and after three decades (which included his own time soldiering in Alaska and elsewhere), the career educator was now Currie's head coach.

McClelland, who attended Arkansas State on a football scholarship, was Eustis' senior star quarterback when Patrick was a rare sophomore starter. "Jerry Lee was tougher than a piece of rawhide," he said. "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 saying much the same about a Panther of another generation, calling Currie "a big 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 Patrick's mother and Currie's grandmother, twice-widowed Mary Patrick Hammond, who lives with her daughter, Lynnette Currie, and her family in Andersonville, Tennessee.

As a Gold Star mother, that pain-won distinction accorded women who have lost a child in combat, Hammond has heard similar words from the men who trained and fought alongside Patrick.

"Absolutely the best human being I ever met," squadmate 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."

Hammond 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 [post-traumatic stress disorder]."

Known to church members and friends as "Miss Mary," the 91-year-old stays more than busy driving to nearby 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 nursing home, where she brings encouragement and mentors adults in reading.

Her first husband, Charles, died in Eustis when Patrick was 12 years old, and it was his World War II Army uniform that Hammond 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 Patrick's battlefield death, Hammond was comforted by the fact that "his life's ambition 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."

Currie was not the least bit surprised upon hearing Hammond talk of Patrick's selflessness and desire to serve. "We were brought up that way."

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