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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
COURTESY PHOTO | Army Sgt. Anthony Venetz (left) and 1st Lt. Gabriel 'Buddy' Gengler, who went to school together at Shoreham-Wading River High School, during a chance meeting in Baghdad.

COURTESY PHOTO | Army Sgt. Anthony Venetz (left) and 1st Lt. Gabriel ‘Buddy’ Gengler, who went to school together at Shoreham-Wading River High School, during a chance meeting in Baghdad.

Army Sgt. Rick Yarosh was manning a gunner’s turret in an armored military vehicle near Abu Ghraib, Iraq, in September 2006 when an Iraqi hiding off in the distance detonated an improvised explosive device that ruptured the vehicle’s fuel cell, according to a story published March 21 in USA Today.

Soaked in gas, Sgt. Yarosh erupted like a human torch as the vehicle caught fire, witnesses said.

Unable to see, he miraculously escaped through a hatch and wandered into a canal, where the water doused the fire that quickly burned his entire body.

“I was ready,” he told USA Today. “I thought this is how the Lord was going to take me.”

Then a pair of hands reached for him — one hand belonged to Army Sgt. First Class Anthony Venetz Jr. of Wading River, the other was offered by Staff Sgt. Saul Jackson.

The two men — along with Sgt. Luis Montes and the targeted vehicle’s driver — kept the badly burned soldier company until a helicopter carried him to a combat support hospital, where doctors worked to save his life.

The story of how he helped save Sgt. Yarosh is one of many highlighting the bravery exhibited by Sgt. Venetz in his decade of military service.

Unsatisfied with his one semester of college and frustrated by the idea of working a 9-to-5 job, Sgt. Venetz was two years removed from high school when he enlisted in the Army in February 2001.

Army First Lieutenant Gabriel “Buddy” Gengler graduated from Shoreham-Wading River High School in 1997, two years ahead of Sgt. Venetz. One day, while serving in Baghdad, Mr. Gengler was sent to deliver a video of a missile strike to the base where his former classmate was stationed, he recalled this week.

Sgt. Venetz, who was serving with an elite Army Special Forces group, playfully declined to salute the ranking officer as he entered the tent.

“Are you kidding me?” Sgt. Venetz asked. “I’ll give you a hug, but I won’t salute you.”

“He had a smirk, a devilish undertone,” Mr. Gengler said affectionately. “But he was very charismatic, which drew everyone to him.”

The old friends spent that day together, taking photographs around the city and telling stories of all they’d been through.

“It was a really unique experience, catching up like that,” Mr. Gengler recalled this week. “Anthony had matured immensely. He wasn’t just the fun-loving guy he was in high school.”

Mr. Gengler, a West Point graduate, said the character with which Sgt. Venetz served was evident in the way he mentored younger soldiers. He said he once heard a story of how Sgt. Venetz worked to help a soldier who’d been denied a sniper post he’d badly wanted. Sgt. Venetz trained the young man to improve his skills and then worked the chain of command to make sure his fellow soldier was considered for the post.

The two snipers would later fight side by side together, providing cover on some of the Special Forces’ most dangerous assignments, Mr. Gengler said.

The stories of how admirably Sgt. Venetz served aren’t limited to the ways he treated his fellow Americans.

Sgt. Venetz was credited in an April 2006 Army press release with helping to pull an Iraqi civilian’s cargo truck from a crater caused by a roadside bomb. He and Sgt. Stephen Holderby located tow hooks on the truck and hooked the tow strap to an Army vehicle. After a first attempt to extricate the massive truck failed, the two soldiers devised another plan. By attaching another tow cable directly to the axle, they skillfully began pulling the heavy truck out of the crater, according to the release.

“This selfless action not only assisted the local national in his delivery of cargo, but also displayed to the people of Hawr Rajeb the concern Coalition Forces have for citizens of Iraq,” Capt. Jared Rudacille said in the release.

Capt. Rudacille and Sgt. Venetz were featured a month later in an Army video detailing Operation Final Fury, a mission their infantry undertook to clean up a terrorist stronghold outside Baghdad.

A caption at the beginning of the video said of the infantry: “They do the dirty work, and also the dangerous work.”

Battling 100-degree temperatures and a dwindling water supply, the men fought for three days in an area littered with improvised explosive devices.

“The first time we came down here we spent three days here,” Sgt. Venetz says in the video. “The first six hours we were down this way it was contact for six straight hours by way of mortars, IEDs and small arms fire.”

Sgt. Venetz’s obituary listed an extraordinary number of honors bestowed upon him during active duty, including two Bronze Star Medals, one with valor; two Purple Heart Awards; four Army Commendation Medals, two with valor; and an Army Good Conduct Medal, along with more than a dozen others.

His sister, Andrea Eisgruber, said she rarely, if ever, heard her brother discuss his many accomplishments.

“I read in the newspaper about all the awards he had won and it shocked me,” she said. “He never talked about them. He never gloated.”

Sgt. Venetz’s mother, Marion, said her son never even told her about the work he did to assist in the capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a fact that is detailed in “We got him!,” a memoir published last year by retired Army Lt. Col Steve Russell, now a state senator in Oklahoma.

Modesty is a trait Mr. Gengler said Sgt. Venetz exhibited at Shoreham-Wading River, where he was the defender asked to stop the other team’s leading scorer on the Wildcats’ 1996 Suffolk County Champion soccer team.

“If you asked Anthony why we won a game, he’d say it was because someone else on our team scored,” Mr. Gengler said. “He would never say it was because he shut down the best scorer on the other team.”

Asked by msn.com this past Veterans Day to detail why he chose to serve his country, now-retired Sgt. Rick Yarosh, took a page from the playbook of the man who helped save his life. The badly burned Sgt. Yarosh, whose portrait has since been hung at the Smithsonian Institution, started off his quote by explaining how 9/11 inspired him to enlist. Then he gave credit to the sacrifices of others.

“No matter what happened to me, my service was going to shape me into a better, stronger, more confident person,” he said. “I made it home, unlike so many others. Please remember these names: Sgt. First Class Anthony Venetz and Sgt. Luis Montes. May they rest in peace.”

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03/20/13 2:00pm
03/20/2013 2:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The ballfields at EPCAL will be named after two soldiers who died in Afghanistan, Jonathan Keller and Anthony Venetz Jr., both of Wading River.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The ballfields at EPCAL will be named after two soldiers who died in Afghanistan, Jonathan Keller and Anthony Venetz Jr., both of Wading River.

Riverhead Town’s long planned ballfields at the Enterprise Park at Calverton will officially open next month, according to Councilman George Gabrielsen, who issued a press release announcing the opening of the fields.

The Opening Day ceremonies at what town officials have named Veterans Memorial Park will start at 10 a.m. on April 27, and will be followed by ballgames, including opening day for Riverhead Little League.

The rain date is April 28.

Opening day participants will include the Little League, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Boy Scouts, local fire departments and other community groups, officials said.

Two of the fields at the 62-acre park will be named in honor of two local soldiers who gave their lives for their country: U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Anthony Venetz Jr, and  U.S. Army Sergeant Jonathan Keller, both of Wading River. The fields will be dedicated in their honor during the April 27 ceremonies.

The town has been planning new fields at EPCAL for more than a decade. A project estimated to cost $1.3 million in 2004 now has cost about $2.5 million to date, according to Mr. Gabrielsen.

Along the way, the fields were delayed by requirements from the county health department and the state Department of Transportation, and officials have debated issues such as whether the fields should have lights installed for night games.

Officials ultimately went with no lights, which would have added about $900,000 to the cost of the project, although they said lights can still be added in the future.

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02/05/13 1:55pm
02/05/2013 1:55 PM


The Town Board on Tuesday agreed to donate land for a new town animal shelter and to offer preference to town residents and Sandy victims to live in downtown’s new subsidized Summerwind housing complex.

No specific site for the land to be donated to the Riverhead Move the Animal Shelter nonprofit group was mentioned in a resolution approved by the board at its meeting Tuesday. The MTAS group is raising money to build a new shelter in town.

As for the Summerwind vote, it passed 4-0 with Councilwoman Jodi Giglio abstaining since she is part owner of the project.

The town also held a hearing on proposed animal control regulations that would, among other things, give the town discretion as to whether to accept surrendered dogs at the town’s existing animal shelter. These regulations are meant to conform with North Fork Animal Welfare League rules, as the nonprofit human group prepares to take over the town shelter on March 1.

The board also rejected, 3-2, a resolution to re-send to Suffolk County planners a zoning change proposal that would allow for a Concordia-owned assisted living facility on Mill Road property in Riverhead.

Board members approved a resolution to name two new town ballfields in Calverton after two fallen soldiers from Wading River.

The board took up other items as well. News-Review reporter Tim Gannon blogged live from the meeting. Click below to see what he had reported.

Riverhead Town Board agenda 02-05-2013 by