‘Not in line of duty’ ruling left soldier’s family without benefits

Anthony Venetz family seeks benefits

More than 400,000 soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

One of them is Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Venetz Jr., who was brought back to the United States from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Jan. 30, 2011, two days after his death. He was carried off a plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware by seven servicemen on an U.S. Army carry team — an American flag draped over the case carrying his body.

Eleven days later, the Wading River native was laid to rest at Arlington with full military honors.

A married 30-year-old father of two, the Green Beret was remembered as a hero by those who attended his burial in section 60, site 9509 of America’s second most populated national cemetery.

That plot may be where Sgt. Venetz’s decade-long service to the military ended, but for the family he left behind, the battle continues today. 

Sgt. Venetz’s widow, Debbie, and children, Jace, now 6, and Alexa, now 10, were the subjects of a recent “CBS This Morning” report detailing their fight to receive military benefits typically given to families of soldiers who give their lives for their country. The Venetz family has been denied those benefits based on an Army investigation ruling that Sgt. Venetz’s death was “not in the line of duty.” The decision stems from an autopsy report that found high levels of opiates — including heroin — mixed with multiple sedatives and marijuana, in his system when he died in his bunk at Bagram Airfield. There was no evidence the drugs were ingested, no signs of prior substance abuse and no illegal drugs were found next to the cough drops and Mucinex at his bedside, the autopsy states.

The Army concluded that Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Venetz Jr. died of an accidental “mixed drug intoxication” and his “own misconduct” caused his death, the report states.

Because of the Army’s ruling, the Venetz family is not entitled to the monthly payments awarded to families of fallen soldiers or the full-tuition scholarship programs available to their children, among many other benefits awarded to families trying to rebuild from tragedy.

Ami Neiberger-Miller of TAPS, a tragedy assistance program for survivors that aids families following a military casualty, estimates that Ms. Venetz and her children are being denied more than $1 million in potential benefits over the course of their lifetimes.

Ms. Venetz said she has filed two appeals of the Army’s ruling. Both were denied. She is currently working with an Army-appointed attorney to file a third appeal.