Army Sgt. Rick Yarosh was manning a gunner’s turret in an armored military vehicle near Abu Ghraib, Iraq, in September 2006 when an Iraqi hiding off in the distance detonated an improvised explosive device that ruptured the vehicle’s fuel cell, according to a story published March 21 in USA Today.
Soaked in gas, Sgt. Yarosh erupted like a human torch as the vehicle caught fire, witnesses said.
Unable to see, he miraculously escaped through a hatch and wandered into a canal, where the water doused the fire that quickly burned his entire body.
“I was ready,” he told USA Today. “I thought this is how the Lord was going to take me.”
Then a pair of hands reached for him — one hand belonged to Army Sgt. First Class Anthony Venetz Jr. of Wading River, the other was offered by Staff Sgt. Saul Jackson.
The two men — along with Sgt. Luis Montes and the targeted vehicle’s driver — kept the badly burned soldier company until a helicopter carried him to a combat support hospital, where doctors worked to save his life.
The story of how he helped save Sgt. Yarosh is one of many highlighting the bravery exhibited by Sgt. Venetz in his decade of military service.
Unsatisfied with his one semester of college and frustrated by the idea of working a 9-to-5 job, Sgt. Venetz was two years removed from high school when he enlisted in the Army in February 2001.
Army First Lieutenant Gabriel “Buddy” Gengler graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School in 1997, two years ahead of Sgt. Venetz. One day, while serving in Baghdad, Mr. Gengler was sent to deliver a video of a missile strike to the base where his former classmate was stationed, he recalled this week.
Sgt. Venetz, who was serving with an elite Army Special Forces group, playfully declined to salute the ranking officer as he entered the tent.
“Are you kidding me?” Sgt. Venetz asked. “I’ll give you a hug, but I won’t salute you.”
“He had a smirk, a devilish undertone,” Mr. Gengler said affectionately. “But he was very charismatic, which drew everyone to him.”
The old friends spent that day together, taking photographs around the city and telling stories of all they’d been through.
“It was a really unique experience, catching up like that,” Mr. Gengler recalled this week. “Anthony had matured immensely. He wasn’t just the fun-loving guy he was in high school.”
Mr. Gengler, a West Point graduate, said the character with which Sgt. Venetz served was evident in the way he mentored younger soldiers. He said he once heard a story of how Sgt. Venetz worked to help a soldier who’d been denied a sniper post he’d badly wanted. Sgt. Venetz trained the young man to improve his skills and then worked the chain of command to make sure his fellow soldier was considered for the post.
The two snipers would later fight side by side together, providing cover on some of the Special Forces’ most dangerous assignments, Mr. Gengler said.
The stories of how admirably Sgt. Venetz served aren’t limited to the ways he treated his fellow Americans.
Sgt. Venetz was credited in an April 2006 Army press release with helping to pull an Iraqi civilian’s cargo truck from a crater caused by a roadside bomb. He and Sgt. Stephen Holderby located tow hooks on the truck and hooked the tow strap to an Army vehicle. After a first attempt to extricate the massive truck failed, the two soldiers devised another plan. By attaching another tow cable directly to the axle, they skillfully began pulling the heavy truck out of the crater, according to the release.
“This selfless action not only assisted the local national in his delivery of cargo, but also displayed to the people of Hawr Rajeb the concern Coalition Forces have for citizens of Iraq,” Capt. Jared Rudacille said in the release.
Capt. Rudacille and Sgt. Venetz were featured a month later in an Army video detailing Operation Final Fury, a mission their infantry undertook to clean up a terrorist stronghold outside Baghdad.
A caption at the beginning of the video said of the infantry: “They do the dirty work, and also the dangerous work.”
Battling 100-degree temperatures and a dwindling water supply, the men fought for three days in an area littered with improvised explosive devices.
“The first time we came down here we spent three days here,” Sgt. Venetz says in the video. “The first six hours we were down this way it was contact for six straight hours by way of mortars, IEDs and small arms fire.”
Sgt. Venetz’s obituary listed an extraordinary number of honors bestowed upon him during active duty, including two Bronze Star Medals, one with valor; two Purple Heart Awards; four Army Commendation Medals, two with valor; and an Army Good Conduct Medal, along with more than a dozen others.
His sister, Andrea Eisgruber, said she rarely, if ever, heard her brother discuss his many accomplishments.
“I read in the newspaper about all the awards he had won and it shocked me,” she said. “He never talked about them. He never gloated.”
Sgt. Venetz’s mother, Marion, said her son never even told her about the work he did to assist in the capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a fact that is detailed in “We got him!,” a memoir published last year by retired Army Lt. Col Steve Russell, now a state senator in Oklahoma.
Modesty is a trait Mr. Gengler said Sgt. Venetz exhibited at Shoreham-Wading River, where he was the defender asked to stop the other team’s leading scorer on the Wildcats’ 1996 Suffolk County Champion soccer team.
“If you asked Anthony why we won a game, he’d say it was because someone else on our team scored,” Mr. Gengler said. “He would never say it was because he shut down the best scorer on the other team.”
Asked by msn.com this past Veterans Day to detail why he chose to serve his country, now-retired Sgt. Rick Yarosh, took a page from the playbook of the man who helped save his life. The badly burned Sgt. Yarosh, whose portrait has since been hung at the Smithsonian Institution, started off his quote by explaining how 9/11 inspired him to enlist. Then he gave credit to the sacrifices of others.
“No matter what happened to me, my service was going to shape me into a better, stronger, more confident person,” he said. “I made it home, unlike so many others. Please remember these names: Sgt. First Class Anthony Venetz and Sgt. Luis Montes. May they rest in peace.”