04/27/13 6:00am
04/27/2013 6:00 AM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Jim C. Seno (left) and his son Jim G. Seno of Wedel Signs install the Veterans Memorial Park sign Tuesday in Calverton. Two of the park’s four ballfields are being named in memory of fallen soldiers (and Shoreham-Wading River High School graduates) Sergeant Jonathan Kelly and Sergreant First Class Anthony Venetz.

In the days after she learned her only son died, Marion Venetz received a phone call from the one family on her Wading River street who knew what she was going through.

Martin and Linda Keller live just two houses down on Long Pond Road and they, too, lost a son who fought in Afghanistan.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Venetz Jr. and Army Sgt. Jonathan Keller died nearly two years to the day apart.

Sgt. Keller was 29 years old when, on Jan. 24, 2009, nine months after suffering numerous gunshot wounds to his arm, he succumbed to an infection at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg. Sgt. Venetz died Jan. 28, 2011 from injuries sustained in a non-combat incident in Afghanistan. It was only recently that the Army released a 1,000-plus-page report which stated that the 30-year-old father of two young children died in the line of duty, though family members declined to discuss the specific circumstances surrounding his death.

This Saturday, April 27, a pair of ballfields at the Enterprise Park in Calverton will be named for the two Shoreham-Wading River High School graduates. The athletic complex itself will now be called Veterans Memorial Park.

“It’s wonderful that they’re choosing to honor them in this way,” Ms. Venetz said.

Mr. Keller said he, too, is touched by the tribute.

“It makes me feel proud that the town is honoring fallen soldiers who have paid the ultimate price here for this community,” he said.

The fields are just one more way the two soldiers, who were one grade apart in school, will be linked together. The bond formed by their mothers is another way.

Ms. Venetz admits she didn’t immediately return the phone call she received from the Kellers after Anthony’s death. In fact, she says it took several months before she finally felt ready to talk about her loss with the two neighbors on the block who could help her most.

“When you lose a loved one in that way, you go through the motions of living,” Ms. Venetz said. “You become kind of afraid that if you talk about it, that makes it real. If you don’t talk about it, maybe it will all turn out to be a bad dream.”

It wasn’t until after one of Sgt. Keller’s siblings later suggested Ms. Venetz finally give the Kellers a call that she picked up the phone.

“The Kellers are such wonderful people,” she said. “They knew exactly the pain I was going through. They’re very kind and giving people. It’s a blessing they were so close by.”

The two Gold Star Mothers have since become good friends and an additional support system for each other.

“I definitely think [the relationship] has helped them both,” Mr. Keller said, “during this period of grieving, which will be forever.”

Mr. Keller said it was heartbreaking to hear of Sgt. Venetz’s death, especially considering how close the families live to each other and the fact that they knew each other their whole lives.

“It was extremely tragic,” he said. “The worst part about it is that he died within a few days of the anniversary of Jonathan’s death. What a war.”

Through telephone conversations they had after Sgt. Venetz’s death, Ms. Keller and Ms. Venetz decided to start volunteering together for Jacob’s Light, an organization that prepares care packages for troops overseas. The group was founded by Dorine Kenney, mother of Spc. Jacob Fletcher, who was killed in November 2003, when he was in a bus that was blown up from a roadside bomb in Samara, Iraq. The Babylon native was 11 days removed from his 29th birthday.

Once a month the two Wading River mothers and several friends have dinner together before meeting at a warehouse in Ronkonkoma to assemble packages for the charity.

“When I used to send [Anthony] packages, it really meant a lot to him,” Ms. Venetz said. “[The charity’s] about making sure all these soldiers have a little taste of home. I feel it’s a worthwhile project.”

Ms. Venetz and the Kellers will gather Saturday at the new ballfields in Calverton for the naming ceremony in honor of their sons. Several of the soldiers’ siblings are also expected to attend.

Ms. Venetz said she wished Sgt. Venetz’s son, Jace, who is now 5 years old, could have thrown out the first pitch. He and his sister, 9-year-old Alexa, live in Florida with their mother, Anthony’s widow Debbie, and the family had a scheduling conflict.

Andrea Eisgruber, Sgt. Venetz’s sister, said her nephew bears a strong resemblance to his father.

“He is his father,” Ms. Eisgruber said. “He looks just like him and he acts just like him. Alexa definitely takes after him, too. She’s very smart … and she commands attention.”

Mr. Keller said his son would be proud of the fact that his name is being used in a way that will benefit children.

“He’s looking down and I know he’s very happy about it,” Mr. Keller said.

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04/27/13 6:00am

Sgt. Jonathan Keller

Martin Keller doesn’t have to think long and hard to come up with the single biggest reason his son Jonathan chose to serve in the Army National Guard.

“The Twin Towers,” Mr. Keller said, referring to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “He was so moved by what happened that day. He was very patriotic.”

A little more than two years after the attacks, Sgt. Keller, who had served in the Navy following his 1998 graduation from Shoreham-Wading River High School, joined the famous “Fighting 69th” infantry division of the New York State Army Reserve.

He served in the 69th Infantry while attending classes at Hofstra University, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in health sciences. He also worked as a personal trainer at a gym in New York City during that time.

Going above and beyond to help others was something Sgt. Keller did with a smile throughout his life, friends and family members said.

At his wake, his mother told friends about all the people who came forward after his death with tales of how he made sacrifices for them.

“There was one girl they didn’t even know who told them he drove her to school every day because she didn’t have a car,” said classmate Kendra McCarrick.

His willingness to sacrifice ultimately led him in 2008 to Kunar Province in Afghanistan, where he served with the 172nd Airborne along the Pakistani border. Among the deadliest and most dangerous regions for U.S. troops, slightly more than half the enemy contact during the current conflict in Afghanistan has taken place in Kunar, according to published reports.

Sgt. Keller and the 172nd Airborne were forced to engage in frequent gunfights with Taliban forces there, his father said.

“He was in numerous firefights,” Mr. Keller said. “There were a lot of them.”

Serving as a gunner defending a border ambush on April 23, 2008, Sgt. Keller, who was promoted to that rank posthumously, suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his arm. After nine months of ups and downs while attempting to recover from his injuries, he succumbed to an infection at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg on Jan. 24, 2009. The 29-year-old was the first Riverhead Town soldier killed in the current military efforts in the Middle East.

Four years later, Mr. Keller is still at a loss for words trying to discuss his son’s final nine months, during which he endured 11 operations.

“It’s really hard to describe,” he said. “I thought he was recovering. He had so many operations — one after the other.”

Sgt. Keller’s injury and heroism earned him the Purple Heart, the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Meritorious Medal, his father said.

At his funeral, which was attended by more than 400 people, Msgr. James Pereda of St. John’s R.C. Church in Wading River said there are no words for such a loss.

“For one so young, so good, who had an infectious smile and always kept a boyish and youthful enthusiasm for everything in life, is it natural to ask why was he taken from us?” the priest asked. “It is a question I do not have an answer to, nor do my brother priests.”

Ms. McCarrick said Sgt. Keller “always wanted to be someone that people were proud of.”

“And I think he was proud to be a part of [the Army],” she said. “It was good for him. He was looking for the camaraderie.”

And his fellow troops respected him. Speaking to Newsday at his funeral, 69th Infantry Lt. Louis Delli-Pizzi of West Islip said Sgt. Keller was a special guy.

“Warrior, leader, great soldier,” he said. “That’s how he lived. He’s going to be remembered in the Fighting 69th for how he lived.”

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