For much of his life, Army Staff Sgt. Casey James Grochowiak chose the most adventurous path.
As a high school student in north San Diego County, he liked surfing and snowboarding. As an infantryman, he jumped out of airplanes. And as an instructor at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, he showed soldiers how to catch a rattlesnake — with their bare hands if necessary.
"He just loved to take chances," said his father, Edward Grochowiak, an attorney and architect who lives in Bonsall, near Oceanside. "He loved motorcycles. He loved parachute jumping and … he just loved the Army, basically."
While recovering from a back injury, the 34-year-old Army Ranger volunteered last year for a fourth overseas tour of duty. He thought his knowledge and experience would help him protect the military's newer arrivals in Afghanistan, family members said.
On Aug. 30, Grochowiak and another soldier were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle in Malajat in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province, on the Pakistani border. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Carson, Colo.
Grochowiak grew up in Encinitas in the 1970s, one of three children. Although he excelled in football, he never quite reached his potential while attending Horizon Christian Fellowship High School, said his brother, Erik Grochowiak, 42. That changed in 1999, when the Carlsbad resident entered the Army.
"It wasn't a financial decision," his brother said. "It was an emotional decision."
A year later, Grochowiak was part of the 82nd Airborne Division. He thrived in the Army's highly disciplined atmosphere and became even more committed to his calling after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He went to Afghanistan the next year, his father said, serving there for seven months.
Grochowiak traveled to Iraq three years later, according to the Army. "He was in many, many combat firefights, too many to count," his father said.
In 2005, after becoming a Ranger, Grochowiak went to Afghanistan for a year. He returned to the U.S. in 2006 and, soon afterward, became an instructor at Eglin's "swamp school," showing soldiers how to approach and handle various jungle creatures, his relatives said.
By 2010, he was ready for another overseas assignment. As a more seasoned soldier, he voiced fears for the safety of the newest, some of whom were heading overseas at age 18. "He felt he needed to be there to look after the younger soldiers," his brother said.
Grochowiak was buried Sept. 11 at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. In addition to his father and brother, he is survived by his wife, Celestina; two children, Matia, 15, and Deegan, 6; his mother, Barbara Grochowiak; and a sister, Kerry Ferguson.
Since Grochowiak's death, his wife and children, with the help of his parents, have moved from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Temecula to be closer to his family in Southern California.