Family seeks truth behind soldier's mysterious death

Family of Special Forces soldier battles the ... 04:58

During his five deployments over 10 years, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Venetz fought for America.

As a Green Beret, he earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. At one point, during a fierce, two-day firefight in Afghanistan, he refused to be evacuated despite being wounded and stayed on the battlefield alongside his fellow soldiers, CBS News correspondent Gayle Lemmon reports.

Sgt. Anthony Venetz operating a weaponized vehicle in Afrghanistan CBS News

Former Captain Danny Fields was his team leader.

"Anthony would be the first choice on my dream team," Fields said. "When you thought of a Green Beret, Anthony was it. He was a hero to me."

But in January, 2011, this Green Beret's life ended in a bunk at Bagram Airfield. It was just days before coming home to his wife Debbie and their two children, Jace and Alexa.

"I told Alexa that Daddy wasn't going to come home anymore and that he had died. And she screamed and screamed and I think that was probably the worst part," Debbie Venetz said.

Adding to her grief was the mystery surrounding her husband's death.

She was stunned when Army records labeled it an "accident" from "mixed drug intoxication."

An autopsy found high levels of opiates--including heroin--in his system, mixed with multiple sedatives and marijuana. But there was no evidence of how the drugs were ingested and no sign of prior substance abuse.

"I was shocked," Debbie said. "He didn't even want to take Tylenol for his headaches because he didn't like it."

The need to discover the truth grew when the Army declared Sgt. Venetz's death "not in the line of duty" due to his "own misconduct." That ruling tarnished his record and deprived his family of military benefits.

Debbie appealed to her husband's commanders, who launched a second investigation, this one by Special Forces.

It revealed that on the night before he died, Sgt. Venetz "was in pain" from combat injuries and "seeking medical attention." Because of "missing medical records" and a lack of evidence that he took the drugs "on his own free will," Special Forces argued the case should be re-evaluated.

But the Army refused to reverse its decision, leaving Sgt. Venetz's family without the education and medical benefits on which they had counted.

Sgt. Venetz's children pose with his medals CBS News

"This family is not being taken care of in the way that they should be," said Ami Neilberger-Miller, an employee of TAPS, a Tragedy Assistance Program that helps thousands of military families.

"There are so many questions here about what happened that night that he died that just don't make sense," Miller said. "And at the end of the day, what we still have is a widow and two little children who are without benefits, whose husband, father will never ever come home."

The Army has declined to comment while Debbie files an appeal.

For her, this isn't only a battle over benefits. It's also a question of whether her husband's death should erase his distinguished service in life.

"He's somebody who sacrificed so much and has gotten nothing in return," Sgt. Fields said.

"Ten years that my husband gave to the military, he's now just another file on someone's desk," Debbie Venetz said. "It's for my children. My children deserve one day to be able to stand there and be proud of their dad."