In the eight years that her husband deployed repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan, she learned to be good at not having him around. So when the knock came to tell her that Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Venetz wouldn’t make it back from Afghanistan that last time, she was prepared, even in her grief, to pick up the pieces.
Debbie Venetz wore white to his funeral — she didn’t care whether people thought she was crazy. The 29-year-old widow wanted to celebrate her husband and let their 7- and 3-year-olds know that while they will miss Daddy, life will go on.
But nothing could have readied her for the nearly six-year battle ahead to restore her husband’s honor and secure benefits for their family.
Debbie took on the Army.
She faced down a withering backlash as she pressed for a more thorough investigation into his death. She sought powerful allies — colonels and generals — to push the case forward. But mostly, she never stopped believing that her husband died the way he lived as a Green Beret — honorably and in service to his country.
Last month, 5½ years after Anthony’s death and five years after the Army ruled that his accidental overdose in Afghanistan was “not in the line of the duty,” an Army review board reversed that finding.
A “not in the line of duty” ruling has severe consequences on families of deceased servicemembers, and the Army makes those determinations infrequently. If a soldier dies while serving, particularly in a combat zone, he or she is presumed to have died “in the line of duty” or while in service to their country. Even most suicides are considered “in the line of duty.” Their families are eligible for benefits based on the length of service and salary.
A “not in the line of duty” finding — a consequence of intentional misconduct — means those benefits are not given to the family. For Debbie and the children, that meant an estimated $1,200 a month from the Army’s Survivor Benefit Plan; GI Bill benefits; and possibly money from the Department of Veterans Affairs. She could be able to get all of the benefits retroactively.
Debbie read the review board’s report, fuming. She could not come to grips with what she’d endured — a criminal investigation and two “line of duty” investigations (the second one completely refuting the original); appeals rejected without explanation; the petition to the corrections board — all so that the Army could come to the conclusion she knew to be right all along.
“I am probably more heartbroken,” she said. “This was the man who was one of the best soldiers out there, and after he died, he got thrown under the bus.”
The Army declined to comment on the report, as has Army Central Command, which controls operations in Afghanistan. Special Operations Command, which encompasses Special Forces, deferred to Army public affairs.
Mistakes from the start
Anthony Venetz was found dead Jan. 28, 2011, in his quarters at Camp Montrond in Afghanistan, just two days before he was to fly home. He was 30 and had recently arrived at the Special Forces camp at Bagram Air Field on his way out of the country.
He had been part of a 12-man Special Forces detachment, belonging to Company A, 2nd Battalion of the 7th Special Forces Group. The team had been operating from a small outpost in rural southeastern Afghanistan with a few dozen U.S. and Afghan infantry.
The mission to conduct outreach with local villages had met with resistance. He’d been wounded twice on that deployment alone and had earned a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor for remaining in a firefight for two days after he was shot in the leg on Sept. 29, 2010. He showed “selflessness, dedication to duty and courage under fire,” according to his medal citation, and helped to repel the enemy and save lives “in keeping with the finest traditions of military heroism.”
That medal was awarded to him Jan. 17, 2011 — 11 days before his death.
He barely had time to recover from the September 2010 incident when he was wounded a second time on Nov. 30, 2010. His vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. Pretty rattled, he was treated for a concussion and a perforated eardrum, then released as he prepared to travel home.
Records and testimony show that he was still suffering from headaches so severe they induced vomiting. He also had a bad cough, and his leg was still causing him pain. “Beaten up” was how one colleague at Camp Montrond described him.
The night before he died, he went to the team surgeon with congestion and a fever, according to the investigation. He was alive at 10 a.m. the next day but was found dead at about 12:30 p.m. Mucinex and the cough medicine the doctor had given him were by his bed.
No other drugs or packaging were found. The autopsy revealed a deadly combination of opiates, a class of tranquilizers known as benzodiazepines and marijuana in his bloodstream. There was no indication of previous drug use, and a pathologist determined it was a one-time event.
At home, Anthony was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery, his wife receiving the folded flag and the jarring gun salute, finding comfort in the knowledge that her husband had served his country.
It wasn’t until the end of August that she learned the command had conducted a “line of duty” investigation and ruled against him in death.
The findings took nearly everyone who knew Anthony by surprise.
His wife was flabbergasted. His death was shrouded in uncertainty, but she knew him. Her husband had no tolerance for illicit drugs, especially on the battlefield. Later, one of his men would attest to Anthony finding drugs on one of his guys and angrily throwing the packet into the river.
Anthony was on his way home, about to start jumpmaster school at Fort Benning, Ga. — something he’d been eager to do to further his career — and he knew there would be drug testing. He had gone to see a medic. Why would he do that if he was taking illegal drugs?
Something didn’t add up, she thought.
She and others were also perplexed by the circumstances of that first investigation. Instead of being conducted within 30 days of his death, as it was supposed to be, it was done nearly seven months later and was finished within a week.
Her husband’s record was filled with “among the best” evaluations, ratings of “excellence” and “superior” and commendations for his service in combat. He was praised for his professional development, his leadership and his bravery.
“He was one of those out-front, dynamic people you wish you had a unit full of,” said Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., in an interview with Stars and Stripes. Russell was Anthony’s battalion commander in Iraq in 2003 and wrote a book about the unit’s part in the capture of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Those of us who served with him knew there had to be some other explanation,” Russell said.
‘Gold Star wife’
It didn’t take long for Debbie to recognize what she was up against. She was knocking on doors, approaching Special Forces commanders at events, doggedly looking for help. She got used to the sting when they would reject her pleas.
One commander at an event in late 2011 where Anthony was posthumously being awarded another Purple Heart looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t think you are a Gold Star wife,” referring to the wives of fallen servicemembers.
“They actually already gave me a gold star,” she retorted.
Debbie kept pressing her case, capturing the attention of Col. Miguel Howe, the acting commander of 7th SFG.
Howe didn’t get to the 7th SFG until after Anthony had died and was not aware of the “line of duty” findings.
The more he read through the paperwork that Debbie gave him, the more perplexing he found it.
“Nothing made sense,” said Howe, now retired and the director of the Military Service Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. “In terms of the professional reputation and the demonstrated record of not only the high performance but the valor … of the soldier, that did not jibe with one incident, one event.”
Howe was not comfortable with an investigation that occurred so long after the death and without the knowledge of the unit. No additional interviews had been done. He believed that a more thorough probe was warranted. In January 2012, he appointed an investigator — an Army major — and sent him out to start an investigation from scratch.
It’s not that Howe believed there was something nefarious. More likely, the intensity of operations in Afghanistan in 2011 was such that legal actions and administrative work took a back burner, he said. “I don’t think it was negligent intent on their part,” he said. “It simply fell through the cracks, and once they discovered seven months after the fact that they had not conducted a “line of duty” investigation, it was just something that needed to be completed. Given the parameters of Sgt. Venetz’ death … they thought it was easy to get done and cross off the list.”
The second investigation took seven months and resulted in a 700-page report.
The investigator traveled to Afghanistan and talked to everyone who was around when Anthony died. He spoke with members of the unit, pored over Debbie’s military records and interviewed colleagues.
On March 11, 2012, as that investigation was underway, an Army soldier attached to the same Special Forces detachment that Anthony had served in walked into a village in southeastern Afghanistan and began spraying bullets at villagers.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales killed 16 people and injured six in the worst mass murder by an American soldier during combat since Vietnam.
The killing shocked Americans and Afghans alike, and while the Special Forces team tried to understand what had happened, their leaders had to handle the political fallout.
The 12-man team of the 7-216 detachment could feel the heat from above, said Capt. Danny Fields, team leader at the time. The team was sent home and dispersed.
It was in the context of these events that the second investigation into Anthony’s death — which concluded that the “not in the line of duty” finding should be reversed — began reaching the desks of the Special Forces leadership.
Debbie and Fields wondered whether that contributed to the poor reception the investigation received by some senior special operations commanders all the way up to then-Brig. Gen. Christopher Haas, commander of the Army Special Forces Command.
“Haas wanted nothing to do with it,” Debbie said. “I almost feel like commanders just wanted to shut everything down.”
Fields, who has since left the Army, said he came to the same conclusion. “It completely blows my mind. You’ve got the backing of this 700-page-long investigation to counter an investigation that took a week,” Fields said. “It’s endorsed by two full-bird colonels. But in front of Haas, [the ruling] doesn’t get overturned.”
Haas, now a major general in Afghanistan, did not respond to requests for comment.
The second investigation revealed that the original investigator was an Air Force captain who had never conducted a “line of duty” investigation by himself and had been given a packet of papers that included previous interviews and was told that he should finish the report within seven days.
That captain, who was not named in the report, said later he did not know he was allowed to ask for an extension. He did not conduct any interviews on his own. There was missing medical paperwork that was never recovered.
He acknowledged that the major who questioned him for the second investigation was far more thorough.
The second investigation concluded that while there was an illicit mix of drugs in Anthony’s bloodstream, there was no indication he was abusing drugs.
It was unlikely, the report concluded, that he had intentionally ingested a drug cocktail for recreation, given the person and soldier he was; that he had a brain injury and was in pain; and that he was days from going home. The most likely scenario: He had taken pills from a trusted person thinking they could give him some relief.
Army regulation gives a soldier the benefit of the doubt when it comes to “line of duty” investigations. A “not in the line of duty” finding requires “substantial evidence” of “intentional misconduct or willful negligence.”
Army Central Command did not release the number of U.S. deaths related to operations in Afghanistan that were determined to be “not in the line of duty.” But defense records indicate it’s a small percentage. Of the 1,673 Army Afghanistan-related deaths since 2001, 341 were labeled nonhostile; the Army has said most of those would be determined to be “in the line of duty.”
The evidence in Anthony’s case did not add up to a “not in the line of duty” finding, the second investigation concluded.
By January 2013, Howe and his boss, Col. Tony Fletcher, commander of 7th SFG and of special operations in Afghanistan where he was deployed with part of the group, had endorsed the investigation and strongly recommended that the initial finding be overturned.
Then bureaucracy set in.
Howe sent the recommendation to Special Forces and Special Operations commands, but officials said they didn’t have the authority to overturn the decision. Army Major Command? Again, no authority. Finally, the report reached the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center, which on March 29, 2013, with little explanation, upheld the original finding.
Debbie pushed from her end, and — with urging from Howe and Fletcher — officials at Casualty and Mortuary Affairs agreed to reconsider the appeal.
However, on June 26, 2013, they dismissed the second investigation in one sentence, then concurred with the original investigation that Anthony died “not in the line of duty.”
Debbie had reached the end of the administrative line. Her only recourse was to file an appeal with the Army records correction board.
Tired of fighting and wanting a new start for her family, she and the children moved to San Antonio, away from Eglin Air Force Base and Anthony’s unit.
But she wasn’t done. She was angry.
She created a Facebook page called Justice for SFC Anthony and posted her frustrations. She also sought support from the survivors’ outreach services at Joint Base San Antonio, where one representative got interested in the issue and started showing the case around.
Meanwhile, a lawyer appointed by Casualty and Mortuary Affairs was trying to help put together a packet for the records correction board, using mostly information from the second investigation. The work was slow, and the lawyer was unsure exactly how to word things, Debbie said.
One day, she was with her kids at a military event, and Debbie recognized a general who used to be with the 7th SFG. She sent her kids across the field to keep him there, and when she caught up, she told him she knew his friends Howe and Fletcher.
“They tried to help me,” she told him. “Will you help me?”
A week later, she met with him in his office, and he helped guide the lawyer to file the application to the correction board in January 2015.
Then they waited. A year passed. Nothing.
Finally, Debbie reached out to Russell, by then a congressman, who took up the mantle. He had his military liaison start a congressional inquiry with the Army review board and, ultimately, wrote a letter to the Army secretary asking why it was taking so long.
When the decision came down last month, Debbie could do little more than ask questions.
“What really happened that night?” she asked.
And she wondered: How do you make sure this doesn’t happen to other families? “A lot of people would have walked away,” she said.
Howe said he used to counsel his new majors by telling them that the Army is the world’s largest bureaucracy, and one of their primary responsibilities will be to mitigate the impact of that bureaucracy on their soldiers and families.
Not everyone has the “warrior ethos” that kept Debbie fighting for as long as it took, he said.
“While her battle was not in the combat zone, the battle she fought and the circumstances through which she fought it — she is a tremendously impressive person,” he said.
Army spokesman Wayne Hall said the change in finding should entitle Debbie to benefits. But he did not have any information on whether they would be retroactive. He did not respond to questions about the reversal or why this happened.
Debbie is also waiting for her husband’s name to be added to the Special Operations Command Memorial Wall at Fort Bragg, N.C.
© 2016 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.