A Decorated Army Staff Sergeant Loses His Life to Shallow Water Blackout

FORMER USC swimmer Joe Curreri, a Staff Sergeant and Special Forces communications sergeant assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Lewis, Wash. died on October 26, 2007, in an accidental drowning incident at Siet Lake while deployed to the Southern Philippines region near Panamao, Jolo Island, Republic of the Philippines. He was 27. He was deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines. Curreri joined the Army in 2004. This was his first deployment in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Joe’s Team was part of a group helping to train Philippine government troops fighting Islamic militants in the nation's southern islands. Joe was due to return to the United States with his group Nov. 8, 2007.

Joe’s death occurred at the conclusion of an arduous, 11-hour scuba-training mission. A powerful and expert swimmer, he had borrowed a snorkel and flippers and jumped back into Lake Siet to retrieve the USC, Kiros and St. Christopher’s medals that he wore around his neck. Joe had accidentally dropped them in the lake and wanted to retrieve them before his return to the States, since they were special to him. The St. Christopher’s medal was a gift from his grandmother. As he was trying to resurface he suffered from shallow water blackout, faded back down, and drowned. Lake Siet has since been renamed Lake Curreri by the local villagers who loved Joe, especially the local children.

Joseph Francesco Michael Curreri was born September 23, 1980 to Frank and Karen Curreri. Raised in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, he attended Loyola Blakefield High School, where he excelled in American and European history and literature. A four-year varsity letter winner in swimming and three-year Scholastic All-American, he captained the swim team his senior year, 1998, and founded and captained his alma mater’s water polo team.

From August 1998 to May 2002, he attended the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, with a special emphasis on the American Civil War. At USC, he was again a four-year varsity letter winner in swimming, and was elected captain of the Trojans for the 2001-2002 season. Active in student-athlete activities, he served as the Executive Vice President of the USC’s Student-Athlete Academic Council in 2000-2001.

For the next year and a half, he worked as a history tutor, swim coach, and recruiting coordinator for a recruiting agency in El Segundo, California, called Digital Artist Management. He was initially denied entry into the service due to a previous back injury. Joe pled his case to the Army Surgeon General and was granted acceptance into the Army. He went directly to an Army recruiter to apply and sign up for the 18X program.

After completing Basic Training (Distinguished Honor Graduate) and Airborne School in November 2004, he reported to the SOPC course at Fort Bragg. Joe was selected for Special Forces training in January 2005, and completed the Q-Course in December 2006 after studying Chinese-Mandarin at Fort Lewis (DLPT scores: listening, I; reading, 2+;speaking, 2). He attended the Combat Diver Qualification Course from January to February 2007, graduating as the Distinguished Honor Graduate.

Joe was a voracious reader; He enjoyed reading books and periodicals examining history, international affairs, politics, religion, and philosophy. Joe hoped to someday earn a doctorate in history, and spend his latter years teaching our next generation the unique and exceptional history of the United States.

Coaches from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and elsewhere urged Joe to join their swim teams, but he fell in love with USC on a recruiting trip.. He was a dedicated Trojan.

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.

Among his swimming career highlights were a 1999 Pac-10 Championships finals appearance in the 200y back (finishing eighth) and a 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials appearance in the 400m IM). He was also part of USC's first-place 1999 U.S. Spring National 800m free relay. Curreri was named to the Pac-10's All-Academic second team in 2000 and 2001 and earned the team's Josh Ilika Spirit Award those years. The Josh Ilika Spirit Award has since been renamed the Joseph Curreri Spirit Award. Joe’s dear friend Josh Ilika made the change. Curreri's military education include the Warrior Leader Course, Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course, Basic Airborne Course; Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Course; Special Forces Qualification Course, and the Combat Diver Qualification Course. His awards and decorations include the Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Special Forces Tab, and the Special Operations Divers Badge. He was posthumously awarded the Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, Army Commendation Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal

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.

In addition to his widow Athena Wickham of Los Angeles and his mother, Karen of Newport Beach, 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 -- which provides scholarships and counseling to children of fallen military personnel.