By Keith Oliver Soldiers Magazine
FORT MEADE, Md., September 8, 2015 — 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 high school football player, who had wanted to join the Army since he was a kid. At Eustis High’s traditional "class night," held the week of graduation, the somewhat 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 7th 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 basic training 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 Vietnam’s Thua Thien province.
At the end of the 1969 football season, the Eustis Panthers inaugurated the Jerry Lee Patrick Memorial Award, presented to the graduating senior who had best exemplified its namesake on and off the field.
Fast-forward to 1992, when some of Patrick’s teammates from the 1963 state championship team discovered the trophy in a closet. The award had been mysteriously discontinued for more than a decade, but the men had it refurbished, adding individual plaques to ensure its perennial status and featuring a rubbing of Patrick's name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Kevin McClelland 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.
Later that year, the restored honor was bestowed on Jerry's own nephew, Russell B. Currie.
McClelland played on the Eustis Panthers with Patrick, and after three decades that included his own time soldiering in Alaska and elsewhere, the career educator came back to Eustis High School, where he also became Currie's head coach.
On the practice field and in games, Currie, like his uncle, was the epitome of mental toughness and dedication, McClelland said. In honor of his uncle, Currie played as No. 60, also Patrick’s number when he played for the Eustis Panthers.
Now an Army sergeant first class and a veteran of two tours in Iraq, Currie said, "My Uncle Jerry was my inspiration for becoming a soldier. And he is still an inspiration to me."
"In high school, my best friend Brea Croak took a rubbing 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 along the Potomac River, I made it a point to always visit the Vietnam Memorial and touch Uncle Jerry's name."
Career Student to Career Soldier
After high school, Currie attended Florida State University before enlisting in the Army, where he was hand-picked in basic training for the Army's vaunted Old Guard ceremonial unit..
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 now enrolled in a master’s program.
The Army "paid back" his tuition loans and at basic training saw something special in both his size -- 6 feet 2 inches, 230 pounds -- and character, sending Currie to the Military District of Washington to join the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, where he served as a casket bearer with the "Full Honors" team.
But in the days and weeks following 9/11, "everything changed," Currie said. He was assigned to Operation Noble Eagle for search and recovery operations at the Pentagon.
"I can't tell you [that] one or two funerals outweighed them all," Currie said 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 Afghanistan, just six months after 9/11.
Back at home station, serving as "head of detail" for the team escorting the remains of Army Cpl. Matthew Commons, Currie 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.
"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 taken him to Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Stewart, Georgia; and into Baghdad in 2005 and through the streets and alleys of Sadr City during "surge operations" in 2007.
Currie was also stationed at 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 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 child this month.
That baby will be born into a family whose bloodlines evoke quiet honor and a strong sense of purpose, McClelland said.
The Gold Star Mom
Such comments mean a lot to Patrick's mother and Currie's grandmother, twice-widowed Mary Patrick Hammond. She 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]."
Her first husband, Charles, died when Patrick was 12, 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 his grandmother talk of Patrick's selflessness and desire to serve. "We were brought up that way," he said.