Fallen Wading River soldiers live on in bond formed by moms

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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