|From The Oregonian oregonlive.com
Friends remember Andrew Keller, soldier killed in Afghanistan
Published: Friday, August 17, 2012, 4:01 PM Updated: Saturday, August 18, 2012, 10:22 AM
By Dominique Fong, The Oregonian
Mourning relatives and friends of a fallen soldier from the Beaverton area were still in shock Friday at the news of his death.
It had been just Tuesday night when Army Pfc. Andrew Keller, 22, texted his family that he was safe, that he loved them, said Debbie Silva, a neighbor.
The next day, Keller was killed when insurgents attacked his unit in Charkh, in the southern part of Logar province in Afghanistan, the U.S. Department of Defense reported. He is the 34th soldier from Oregon to be killed in Afghanistan.
Keller was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, based in Caserma Ederle, Vicenza, Italy. He was deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Family members took a plane Friday morning to the East Coast to retrieve Keller's body and couldn't be reached for comment.
Others in the Beaverton community, however, felt the deep loss for the former Southridge High School student and popular football star.
As a child, Andrew Keller grew up around the love of sports. He played in the Southridge Youth Football program, and his father, Jeff Keller, managed a Murrayhill Little League team that went to the Little League World Series in 2006.
Keller was a gifted athlete in football and enjoyed mentoring others at youth camps, said Jeff Martin, a former coach from the youth program.
On Friday, Martin stood alone at the edge of a roundabout near south Beaverton, wiping away tears that slid out from underneath his sunglasses. He stared at the American flags and a memorial of Keller's picture and a Southridge football helmet.
In the youth program up until eighth grade, Keller played as a linebacker and running back, sometimes even in pain with injuries so that he wouldn't let his team down, Martin said.
"You can't walk too far here without running into someone who knew him," Martin said. "It's really affected the community."
Keller carried his strong work ethic to the varsity football team at Southridge High, where he mostly played as an outside linebacker. During one game leading up to the championships against Jesuit High School, Keller continued to play with a torn-up shoulder so he could support his team, said Doug Dean, who at the time was a defense coordinator.
"I was just devastated with the loss of him," Dean said. "He was a tremendous young man. It was really hard to swallow."
Connie Jolley, a former Southridge High School health teacher, said she has taught thousands of students, but Keller was one of the few who affected her the most.
"His smile could make anyone's day brighter and he was liked by many," Jolley wrote in an email. "He was hilarious and the kind of kid that people just wanted to be around."
Jolley was impressed by Keller's diligence in his schoolwork, especially his research on dietary supplements, she wrote. She also lived down the street from him and often saw him when she went on a jog, she wrote. When she passed him, he would yell, "Go faster, Jolley." Those words always gave her a burst of energy, even if she was huffing to get up the hill.
After Keller graduated in 2008, he didn't feel college was the best route for his future, Dean said.
"He really wanted to do something positive and productive with his life," Dean said. "You can see why he went into the armed services."
Keller was proud of his decision to join the U.S. Army, Dean said.
Keller's younger brother, Derek, was hit hard by the death. It had always been the two of them, brothers so close they were best friends.
"Rest In Peace to my brother/best friend... I know you're gonna watch over me for the rest of my life. I love you PFC Keller," Derek wrote on his Facebook page.
Derek's profile picture reflected their deep friendship. Andrew has an arm around his younger brother, and both are sporting matching black vests and big smiles on their faces.
About two hours ago, Derek posted his latest remembrance: a picture of his brother in uniform and the words, "a true hero."
|From The Oregonian oregonlive.com
Canzano: A soldier's mission, a family's devastation, a nation's loss
Published: Sunday, August 19, 2012, 9:47 PM Updated: Sunday, August 19, 2012, 10:09 PM
By John Canzano, The Oregonian
TIGARD -- Paper table cloths draped three small folding tables in the backyard of Jeff Keller's home on Sunday. One red, one white, and one blue. It was here, not far from where two brothers once played as little boys, that a grieving family tried to stop the world from wobbling.
The military record will show that Army Pfc. Andrew Keller, 22 and the leader of his unit, was killed in action Wednesday in Afghanistan. He was shot by insurgents on a hillside in Charkh, and when the "Soldier down!" call came, two men in his unit ran up the hill two miles to his body.
Keller was dead from a gunshot to the head.
Where do you start? How do you tell such an important story for what is the 34th local family to have a son die in Afghanistan since the war began? How do you ever again read the words, "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and not also think about Andrew's mother, Kim, sobbing in her black dress at the foot of the stairs he climbed as a 10-year old?
Jeff Keller coached a memorable team of ballplayers from Murrayhill to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., in 2006. His youngest son, Derek, was a star on that team. His oldest son, Andrew, was a MVP on the Southridge High School football team. This family was all of us -- and America, too -- right down to their home in the cul-de-sac, the fishing trips and the scrapbook that mom kept of Andrew's military career.
Inside, there are photographs of Andrew, standing tall in uniform. And his first letter home, in which he wrote, "I miss you guys so much it hurts but this is what I want in my life." And even the Delta Air Lines boarding pass from Andrew's flight to boot camp. He sat in seat 17F, and I wondered if he looked out the window and watched Portland disappear as the plane took off, or maybe turned to the passenger beside him and explained that he'd joined the Army.
Soldiers are brothers. We hear that all the time. But you don't fully grasp it until you hear Jeff Keller talk about those two soldiers who ran to his son's body. They saw that he was dead, and pulled off their shirts to shield him as a helicopter stormed in. As the rotors hurled rocks and debris everywhere, they covered his dead body with their bare backs to the sky.
"They got," Jeff said, choking up, "all torn up protecting his body."
Andrew struggled after high school to find purpose. Football was over. He got engaged to Marissa Jones, his eighth-grade sweetheart and, after being talked out of going into the military, enrolled in community college.
Then, in his second year of college, he told his parents, "I'm thinking of joining the Army."
Dad said, "Now, let's talk about this."
Andrew said, "I've already joined."
Andrew was 22, an adult, and the exact kind of proud, confident, capable soldier that our country has long relied upon. His parents, while worried sick at the idea of their first-born seeing combat, knew he had to make his own journey.
It was one that ultimately led to what was supposed to be a 48-hour mission to secure an observation post.
One that led to Andrew?s final communication to his father:
"I'm safe. I'm on a hill in some God-forsaken place. Text you as soon as I can."
Derek, 19, was home alone when the military officer arrived. Neighbors rushed over after seeing the scene unfold on the porch. Kim was at the post office, mailing a care package Andrew would never receive. Jeff was in Newport on business when his phone rang with "Derek" popping up on the caller ID.
Nothing has felt the same since.
"I drove two and a half hours straight home," Jeff said. "All I remember from the drive was hitting the rumble strips on the side of the road and middle of the road."
Jeff called me on Friday from the Air Force base in Dover, Del. He, his wife, son and Marissa had made the trip to receive Andrew's body. They were lost in a swirl of grief.
The father said: "I knew I had a wonderful child, but I didn't realize until he died that so many people felt the same way I did."
Jeff cried talking about the 22 flags placed by Andrew's friends on the roundabout near his home. He cried talking about seeing waders on the garage wall, reminders of a family fishing trip they?d planned for next year. And he cried again talking about his son's fianc?. "I'm heartbroken for my son and Marissa; they had plans."
They were escorted to the tarmac Saturday, where they received Andrew's body. There will be a military autopsy. There will be a service this week. Andrew's cousin, also in the military, will accompany the body to Portland where Andrew will be buried in Willamette National Cemetery. But this was a private moment, with tears running down everyone?s cheeks.
The family that had spent so much time talking about losing Andrew had him back, finally.
Lots of people knew Andrew. There were all around the Kellers? home on Sunday. They brought food. They brought hugs. A few stood on the porch, smoking cigarettes, looking at the United States flags planted in the lawn and the poster-size photograph of Andrew with the word "Our hero" on it. Andrew's grandmother, a warm woman with a great hug, stood not far from a dining-room table covered with photographs of Andrew as a little boy.
Andrew caught his first fish at 6. He caught a 32-pound salmon when he was 7. His father tried to take the rod and help land the fish, but Andrew wouldn't let anyone touch it.
He was fiercely loyal, and kind. Andrew's friends talked about his athleticism, and his giant hands, and his passion for life.
A classmate who was picked on in high school called Jeff after hearing the news and said, "Sir, I want you to know your son was nice to me when nobody else was."
So yeah. How do you do justice to Andrew and his family? What do you do with a good life interrupted? What do you make of the news that Andrew's unit was pulled off that hill in Charkh after his death because it was deemed too risky for anyone to be there?
Kim and Jeff tried to make sense of that in the wee hours of Sunday morning. They decided that their son would tell them, "Mom, Dad -- if my death saved other people from being in danger and losing their lives, then my death was worthwhile."
All we ever want is for our lives to mean something.
There is no consolation in learning the details of a soldier's death. But context becomes comfort. Jeff said, "My son was doing what he wanted to do. If we were there for a reason, he wanted to be fighting for us."
The father stood around that table of photographs on Sunday, with a group of friends and neighbors, recounting the story of those two soldiers rushing up that hill, risking their lives to protect his son's remains. There's a brotherhood among soldiers that we could all learn from.
Jeff said to the room: "If there's any comfort that's where it lies because there isn't much comfort anywhere else."
Pfc. Andrew J. Keller is the 154th soldier with ties to Oregon and southwest Washington to be killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I stood in his family's home watching as they wrestled with their son's brave desire to serve his country and their gut-twisting grief. I kept coming back to that flight before boot camp. I hope the passenger sitting beside Andrew in Row 17 turned and thanked him.
I hope someone thanked him for us all.
"I'm going to keep him alive in everybody's heart," his dad said. "It's my my goal to make sure nobody ever forgets my son."