Army Sgt. James M. Treber, 24, Imperial Beach

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

When their armored truck toppled into a canal that night in southern Afghanistan, the soldiers struggled to free themselves in the darkness as the water level rose.

One of them was Army Sgt. James M. Treber, a 24-year-old Green Beret from Imperial Beach, near San Diego, who recently was married and had arrived in the country for his first combat tour just six weeks earlier.

He and two other soldiers drowned in the June 29 accident near Khosrow-E Sofla in Kandahar province. One of Treber’s last acts was to free another soldier from his seat belt and give him his air pocket. Treber went below the water, looking for another way out.

“He knew there was not enough room for both of us to breathe,” the lone surviving soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Serna, was quoted as saying by the Army’s Special Operations Command News Service. Before blacking out, Serna said, he saw Treber struggling to open the hatches.

Treber, the son of a career Navy man, was born in Hawaii and graduated from Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, where he participated in the ROTC program.

Special Forces recruiters impressed him with their pitch, and he wanted to do something exciting, but his father, Gordon Treber of Astoria, Ore., said he steered him toward the merchant marine.

“I told him from Day One, ‘You’re supposed to bury me, I’m not supposed to bury you,’ ” he said. “I told him, ‘I love this country, but I don’t know if I love it enough to give up a son for it.’ ”

Still, he said he supported his son’s decision when, after a stint in the merchant marine, he joined the Army in November 2005 and signed up for Special Forces training.

“He wanted to see whether he was up for being a Green Beret,” the elder Treber said. “I never had any doubts that he’d make it.”

Apart from patriotism, Treber was motivated by a fierce competitive streak. “He was just a go-getter,” said his mother, Laurie Treber of Fort Mohave, Ariz. “He had to be the best.”

Treber was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

When the elder Treber learned his son had drowned after his heavily armored vehicle rolled off a primitive road, he assumed his son had been knocked unconscious. It was not until after the memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery that he heard reports about the fellow soldier his son had saved. “It’s kind of heart-wrenching,” he said.

In addition to his father and mother, Treber is survived by his wife, Tamila, of Fayetteville, N.C.; his stepmother, Nicole; two brothers, Gordon Treber Jr. of San Diego and Daniel Hunt of San Mateo, Calif.; two sisters, Barbara Hunt of Orange and Angel Hunt of Modesto; and his grandparents, Paul and Kate Treber of Colton, Ore., and Nathan and Thelma Jacques of Mohave Valley, Ariz.