Wading River soldier remembered

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A priest tried Monday to help a Wading River soldier's family and friends make sense of the Army National guardsman's death last month after he was wounded in Afghanistan last year.

Spc. Jonathan Keller had an "infectious smile" and a "boyish and youthful enthusiasm for everything in life," Msgr. James Pereda said during a funeral Mass at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Wading River.

But Pereda told more than 400 mourners who packed the church that they may never understand Keller's death.

"Why? Why was he taken from us?" Pereda said. "It is a question for which I do not have the answers."

Keller died Jan. 24 at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was rehabilitating after being shot in the arm and shoulder last April during a firefight in Afghanistan. He was 29. His death remains under investigation.

Pereda said Keller's death reminded him of a children's fairy tale about a caterpillar confused by the patterns on an Oriental rug. Only when the caterpillar became a butterfly could it hover over the rug and admire its beauty, he said.

"All things work unto good," Pereda said.

Keller's parents, Martin and Linda, his sister, Andrea Keller Helsel, and brothers Joshua and Michael filled a front-row pew.

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Friends of Keller and his family sat in the sunlight-filled sanctuary among men and women in military uniforms.

Keller had a "vibrant" personality and many friends, said Clayton Goroway, 27, a friend of Keller's brothers. Another friend, who declined to be identified, said Joshua and Michael Keller were "absolutely devastated" by their brother's death.

Keller's family is drawing strength from the community and the Army as they mourn, Pereda said. "Their faith is really sustaining them," he said.

Fellow soldiers remembered Keller's heroism and running skills. Keller was shot while leading a platoon into battle, they said.

"Jonathan was a special guy. Warrior, leader, great soldier," said Lt. Louis Delli-Pizzi of West Islip, of the Bay Shore-based 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, Keller's former unit.

"That's how he lived," Delli-Pizzi said. "He's going to be remembered in the Fighting 69th for how he lived."

Following the religious service, dozens of friends and family gathered for a military ceremony at Calverton National Cemetery.

Beneath a flag flown at half-staff, a bugler played "Taps" before a seven-man honor guard carried Keller's coffin to a hearse. His body was buried later in the day.

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