Skip to comments.Jersey family watched a quiet boy grow [Cpl. Michael E. Curtin]
Posted on 04/28/2003 6:48:57 AM PDT by Incorrigible
Sunday, April 27, 2003
BY TOM FEENEY
[Howell Township, NJ] -- Army Cpl. Michael E. Curtin lived most of his life just off Route 9, in a black-shuttered Colonial on a cul-de-sac in Howell. He shared a bedroom with his younger brother Danny until the day he left for basic training.
He died on Highway 9 in Iraq on a sunny Saturday morning last month when a suicide bomber in a taxicab pulled up to the roadblock where he stood guard. He was the first New Jersey soldier killed in the war.
Route 9 runs over the sandy coastal plain of New Jersey, past pizza parlors, strip malls and used-car lots. Highway 9 runs through the desert of southern Iraq, from the holy city of Najaf to the capital, Baghdad.
Though the roads are thousands of miles apart, they will forever intersect in the personal history of an American soldier with blue eyes and ruddy cheeks.
That history began 23 years ago when Michael J. and Joan Curtin had their first child. Michael E. Curtin lived the first five years of his life in Garwood before the family moved south on Route 9, to the house on the cul-de-sac in Howell.
The house was soon filled with life. Four other children followed Mike: Katie, Danny, Jennifer and Stephanie. Aunts, uncles and cousins would join them to celebrate birthdays and other occasions, and every Christmas they would gather to exchange gifts and to feast on Michael Curtin's ravioli.
The Curtin house also included a veritable menagerie -- dogs, cats, a cockatiel, even chickens and roosters. Big Mike is an easy mark, his wife said, always bringing home animals someone else could no longer care for.
Big Mike makes his living as a mechanic for Station Cab Co. in Rahway. He often brought along Little Mike when he took the family cars to the taxicab garage to tinker with them, said Joan Curtin. When Little Mike was in high school and bought a black Camaro with money he made working at Kmart and a summer camp, his father took him to the taxicab garage and helped him paint it red.
In the summer, family life revolved around vacations -- sometimes trips to Disney World or Colonial Williamsburg, sometimes a week in a house in Lavallette or in a cabin on a lake in New Hampshire.
Once, the parents loaded the kids in the minivan and drove west to the Grand Canyon. They drove through Dallas on the way back so they could stop at a building 10-year-old Michael E. Curtin considered a shrine: Texas Stadium, home of his beloved Dallas Cowboys. They talked a security guard into letting them go inside to pose for pictures and have a look around, Joan Curtin said.
More recently, Joan saw an ad in a newspaper for a group tour of Ireland. Her oldest son had always been proud of his Irish heritage, so she asked him whether he wanted to go. The two of them spent five days in Ireland last Thanksgiving touring pubs, Joan Curtin said, and they talked about going back again someday.
Music was important in Curtin's life. He liked the Beatles, U2 and Yes, according to his uncle John Curtin. He played the bass guitar, although only in his bedroom and only for his own amusement, his family said.
Sports were important, too. He played Little League baseball from the time he was 5 until he reached high school. He also played four years of football at Howell High School, where coaches and teammates remember him as a hard worker who always showed up for practice even though he never saw much playing time.
"He was really good, but we had such a massive team it was hard to get into a game," said friend and fellow wide receiver Tony Maglio, who plans to ask the school to retire Curtin's number 40.
Most of Curtin's buddies were Giants fans, so he was always getting grief about his Dallas Cowboys, Maglio said. Like the rest of them, though, he was also a Yankees fan. They followed the team closely and made several group trips to the Bronx to watch the Bombers play.
Curtin was remembered by many of those who came to his viewing and funeral as earnest, pious and unfailingly polite.
"He was a reserved kid, but once you got to know him, he was always coming out with something that made you laugh," Maglio said.
His aunt, Karen Thompson of Bridgewater, said parents of his childhood friends told her as they made their way past Curtin's casket that he was the child they wanted their sons to play with.
"I was so proud of him," his father said a few days after the funeral. "Perfect morals, integrity and virtue and piety."
TWO OF A KIND
When Michael E. Curtin graduated from high school, his uncle took him on as a helper in the machine shop at a plastics manufacturing concern in Cranford, Petro Packaging Co. John Curtin had learned the tool-and-die trade from his own uncle, and he offered to pass it on to his nephew. They worked side by side for more than two years.
The two men, 23 years apart, became very close. They listened to the same music and loved the same football team. Curtin often went to his uncle's house on Sundays to watch Cowboys games on the satellite TV. Uncle and nephew understood each other, John Curtin said, in a way that was hard to explain.
"We were kind of ... two guys who just think the same," he said. "You look at each other and you know what the other guy's thinking."
Michael E. Curtin took night classes in tool-and-die-making in an Ocean County Vocational-Technical Schools program at Lakehurst Naval Air Base but eventually decided he wanted to do something different with his life.
Toward the end of his stint at Petro, when he knew he was leaving for the Army, he started hiding pages from his calendar of "The Far Side" cartoons around the machine shop for his uncle to find later.
The discoveries would always bring a smile to his uncle's face.
Curtin told his uncle that he had hidden something else, too -- a picture of action movie star Chuck Norris. The men had a silly running argument about whether Norris or Bruce Lee was the greater martial artist. Curtin always argued for Norris. Before he left for the Army, he cut Norris' picture out of an old T-shirt and stashed it behind a drawer in a wooden toolbox in his uncle's shop.
"I spent the better part of a year looking for that one," John Curtin recalled.
John Curtin mailed it back to his nephew, who had long since left for the Army.
He wonders if it will turn up again when his nephew's personal effects are returned to the family.
Curtin was more than two years removed from his 1998 graduation from Howell High School when he first showed interest in the military.
"He talked about it for a short while," his mother said. "One day he just came home and said, 'I signed the papers.'
"My husband and I were like, 'What? Without even talking to us?' But he wanted to do it."
As close as they were to him, his family still can't put their finger on why he decided to join.
He might have been motivated by the educational benefits, his mother said. Curtin was an earnest student who made average grades in high school. He had insisted after his graduation that college wasn't for him, his mother said, but that view had begun to soften. A hitch in the Army would help with tuition, he knew.
He might have been motivated by the Ranger program. He was smitten with the idea of joining the Army's elite fighting unit, his family said.
Or he might have been motivated by a simple, primal urge to leave his parents' home and find his place in the world.
At that stage of life, which for Curtin was in early 2001, "you're kind of a man, but you're not sure what to do yet, either," his uncle said. "Maybe this was his way to break away and be on his own a little bit."
His mom could tell from his letters and phone calls that he was homesick during basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia. Nonetheless, she could tell, too, that military life agreed with him. His successes -- commendations, medals for marksmanship, a rapid promotion to corporal -- gave him confidence, and he seemed to have no regrets about signing up.
The Ranger experience wasn't quite what he expected. He completed the grueling training successfully. He even told his uncle about the rush of adrenaline he felt when he jumped out of an airplane. But he wasn't about to do it for a living.
"Michael wasn't your typical nutty type guy," he said. "He was very sensible. And he probably gave it a second thought and said: I don't know, guys."
He decided to serve as an infantryman rather than as a Ranger.
His graduation from basic training came at a momentous time in American history -- September 2001. His family drove to Georgia to attend the graduation ceremony, setting out from Howell just before midnight Sept. 12, less than 15 hours after the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"Everyone was telling us, 'Don't go,' but we were determined to get down there for Michael," his mother said.
In basic training, Curtin and the other new soldiers were told little about the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
Not until after the graduation ceremony, when he was watching the TV news in his family's hotel room, did he learn the full scope of the attack on the nation he had sworn to defend.
AT THE ROADBLOCK
Curtin was deployed from Fort Stewart, Ga., to Kuwait Jan. 25 to await the start of the war in Iraq. His platoon of dismounted infantrymen was known as "the Outlaws." It had a reputation as one of the best platoons in the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade. The assignment would be to provide security for a tank company, Bravo 369.
When the ground assault began eight weeks after his arrival in Kuwait, Curtin and the rest of the 3rd Infantry met virtually no resistance as they rolled north across the shifting sands of southern Iraq.
That changed when they reached Najaf, a city in south central Iraq that is home to a Shi'a Muslim shrine, the tomb of Ali. There the American troops came under heavy artillery fire.
As the Army dug in to fight, it set up a roadblock on Highway 9 about 20 miles north of Najaf. It was the northernmost U.S. post at the time, designed to protect the 3rd Infantry Division and to keep Iraqi reinforcements from Baghdad from joining the fray in Najaf. The Outlaws manned the roadblock.
On the day Michael E. Curtin died, he and four other members of his platoon tried to turn around a man in a white pickup shortly before 10:30 a.m., but the man refused to leave. He claimed to have an injured ankle. As he sat down in the median, he told them he was going to wait there for a taxicab, the journalists with the 3rd Infantry reported.
The unit's sergeant, Chad J. Urquhart, 25, of Los Alamos, N.M., stepped away from the roadblock to radio in a report about the man in the median.
By now a cab was approaching from the north.
When the driver got near the roadblock, he refused orders from Curtin and the others to turn around. He called out to the soldiers in English that he had come to pick up a passenger, according to an account in the Jerusalem Post.
Curtin and the others ordered the driver out of his cab and told him to open his trunk. When he did, the cab exploded, killing the four soldiers, the driver and the man who claimed to have the injured ankle.
Urquhart was spared because he had stepped away to use the radio.
The charred wreck of the cab landed 15 feet down the road.
The explosion blew a crater in Highway 9.
If the war was terrifying on Highway 9, it was excruciating on Route 9.
Joan Curtin, a nurse who works in a doctor's office and at a nursing home, had taken time off from work after the invasion started.
"Not knowing when I'd hear from him and not knowing what would happen -- it was rough," she said.
She spent hours in front of the television, following the progress of the coalition forces.
Curtin had been a regular correspondent while he was stationed in Kuwait, but once the invasion started, his letters stopped.
Joan Curtin was upstairs watching CNN on March 29, a Saturday, when two Army officers turned off Route 9 and pulled up in front of her black-shuttered Colonial on Canaan Court.
All day long, the news stations had been reporting about the suicide bombing on Highway 9. She had probably heard the report a dozen times by 5 p.m. when her husband called up the steps to her.
"He said, 'Joan, come down here,' and when I came down, there were two officers standing in my living room," she said.
She knew too well why they had come.
The suicide bomber was identified as Al Jaafar al-Naomani, a noncommissioned officer in the Iraqi army who was said to be in his 40s or 50s and the father of several children.
The bombing won him great praise in his homeland. According to Iraqi television, Saddam Hussein posthumously promoted him to colonel and awarded him two medals -- one called the Two Rivers, the other called the Mother of All Battles.
Iraqi television also reported that Saddam would give the man's family 100 million dinars, which, before the monetary system in Iraq collapsed, was the equivalent of $35,000 -- a handsome sum in the Iraqi economy.
Acclaim for the man who killed Curtin came from elsewhere in the Middle East as well. Palestinians in the refugee camp of Jenin honored him by changing the name of their main square from Mosque Square to Naomani Square.
"This is just the beginning," Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan told a news conference in Baghdad on the afternoon of the suicide bombing. "You'll hear more pleasant news later. These bastards will be welcomed at the level and in the way they deserve."
Today, a gold star hangs in the front window of the Curtin house on the cul-de-sac near Route 9.
The piano in the living room is covered with flowers, photographs and other reminders of son and brother.
Sympathy cards have arrived by the dozens. Many are unsigned. Some are addressed simply, "Curtin Family, Howell, NJ." They express condolences to family and gratitude for the sacrifice Curtin made for his country. His father, who has taken to wearing his son's fatigue shirt around the house, sits and reads every one of them.
The township Little League has dedicated its season to Curtin.
A local Boy Scout troop is going to refurbish a picnic bench at Echo Lake Park and name it in his honor.
Two people have offered to give flagpoles to Curtin's father, and he said he is inclined to take them both.
He'll put one in the front yard, where you might expect one to be.
And he'll put one out back.
"That's where I spend most of my time anyway," he said on an afternoon not long after his son's burial.
The yard, close enough to Route 9 that you can hear the traffic through the trees, is full of reminders of the son who was lost on Highway 9.
There's an old Rottweiler in failing health, basking on the sunny lawn. Curtin's father was keeping him alive in hopes his son would be able to get home to see the dog one last time.
There's that red Camaro father and son painted together. The father now plans to have it restored so he can give it to his second son, Danny.
And there's a patch of bare earth where Curtin used to swing his golf clubs as his father sat nearby, reading verses from his Bible.
"Now I'm trying to get the grass to grow back," Michael J. Curtin said.
Not for commercial use. For educational and discussion purposes only.
|Fri Apr 11, 4:02 PM ET|
Joan Curtin (C) cries as an unidentified man holds the flag for her son Army Cpl. Michael E. Curtin, at his funeral in Howell Township, New Jersey, April 11, 2003. Curtin, 23, died along with three other soldiers from his unit of the Third Infantry Division in the March 29 suicide bombing at a military checkpoint. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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