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.”