Anthony Venetz Jr. and Jonathan Keller grew up on the same block in Wading River. They were one grade apart in high school. And they both served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
Now, almost exactly two years apart, they have both suffered the same grim fate. Sgt. 1st Class Venetz died Friday in a non-combat-related incident at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Venetz, 30, was a highly decorated Special Forces engineer sergeant assigned to Company A, 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, according to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
The cause of his death is still under investigation, Pentagon officials said. He is survived by his wife and two young children.
The soldier’s father, Anthony Venetz Sr., told the Fayetteville Observer this week he was told there were no signs of foul play, but that an autopsy was pending.
He then acknowledged it was “possible” his son’s death was related to previous injuries.
Sgt. Venetz was shot in the leg in September and then suffered a concussion after a Humvee he was traveling in was struck by a roadside bomb, the father told the North Carolina paper.
“We don’t know, and that’s the hard part,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to deal with the fact that he’s gone. That’s the part I haven’t even begun to believe yet.”
Sgt. Keller, who graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School in 1998 — one year before Sgt. Venetz — died Jan. 24, 2009, nine months after suffering a gunshot wound in a fire fight.
“Our hearts go out to the Venetz family,” Sgt. Keller’s father, Marty Keller, said this week after learning of Sgt. Venetz’ death. “Our children grew up as neighbors and friends; we feel and understand their sorrow and extend our deepest sympathies along with our prayers.”
Mickey Hammer also lives on Long Pond Road, where the two soldiers grew up. He counted Sgt. Venetz and Sgt. Keller not only as friends but as colleagues. He is on active duty in the Army but is currently home after serving three tours in Iraq.
“They were real good guys who both served their countries,” he said. “They were patriots. Some people will say they died for nothing. They died serving their country. That’s something.”
Sgt. Venetz enlisted as an Army infantryman in February 2001, in Prince William, Va., and attended basic combat training and advanced individual training at Fort Benning, Ga., according to the USASOC news service. His first assignment was with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Hood, Texas, where he was assigned as a scout platoon, and during which time he was deployed once to Cuba and twice to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He volunteered to become a Special Forces soldier in 2007, graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course in 2009 and was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Airborne Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., Army officials said.
Jerry McGrath, a retired teacher who also lives on Long Pond Road, had fond memories of both Sgt. Venetz and Sgt. Keller from their days at Wading River Elementary School.
“I felt so bad when I heard about [Sgt. Venetz’ death] the other day,” he said this week. “I remember Anthony as a great kid.”
Mr. McGrath said he contacted Sgt. Venetz’ sister over the weekend. She said the family was grateful for the outpouring of support from the community. The loss was felt throughout the Wading River hamlet, which counts among its residents many members of the Armed Forces.
Longtime Shoreham-Wading River teacher Bob Vlahakis had coached Anthony Venetz on a soccer team his son Jimmy played on.
Jimmy Vlahakis also served in the Middle East after graduating from West Point.
“This is a sad day for us to hear this news,” Mr. Vlahakis said. “As parents of a child who served overseas, we understand how emotional it is to wake up every day with a loved one in harm’s way. Our prayers are with his immediate family, his extended family and all the young men serving our country.
“Our fond memories of Anthony as a young boy growing up, and as a young man in uniform, will never be forgotten.”
Sgt. Venetz’ awards and decorations include two Bronze Star Medals, one with valor; two Purple Heart Awards; four Army Commendation Medals, with two for valor; Army Good Conduct Medal; National Defense Service Medal; lraq Campaign Medal; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; NCO Professional Development Ribbon; Army Service Ribbon; Overseas Ribbon; Presidential Unit Citation; Joint Meritorious Unit Award; Meritorious Unit Award; Special Forces Tab; Combat lnfantryman Badge; Expert lnfantryman Badge; and Parachutist Badge.
Sgt. Venetz’ other military education includes the Warrior Leaders course, Basic Noncommissioned OHTCGT course, Combat Lifesaver course, Basic Airborne course, Army Sniper course and the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course, according to the USASOC.
Funeral arrangements have not yet been set.