Marine wife runs to help wounded troops get back on their feet

By DAVID LAUDERDALE | The Island Packet | | February 21, 2013

A young Beaufort couple stepped out of church to face news they instantly knew would not be good.

"We had missed text messages and phone calls from both my parents – on my phone and my husband’s phone – so we knew something was wrong," Jenifer Keller said this week from her home in the Habersham neighborhood.

Keller's younger brother was then a 24-year-old Marine Corps corporal serving his third combat tour in the Middle East.

Captain Eli and Jennifer Keller
Captain Eli and Jennifer Keller at his 2012 homecoming. Photo: The Island Packet

The news on that Sunday in October in 2009 was that the light armored vehicle he was in ran over an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Cpl. Cory Mathis survived the blast. But he was hospitalized for three months with shattered and fractured bones. His injured spleen had to be removed, and he was in a leg brace for nine months.

That's why Keller will push herself harder than ever this spring to help other Marines and their families who face the long climb back from combat injuries.

She signed up for the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston. Between now and April 6, she will train for her first 10K (6.2 miles). And she will seek sponsors to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.

Since 2004, the Semper Fi Fund has made about 53,000 grants totaling $70 million to 8,800 wounded service members and their families.

"My parents were with my brother, by his side, and it was hard for them to just up and leave everything," Keller said. "The costs are pretty phenomenal once it starts adding up."

The Semper Fi Fund gave her parents money to help with travel, living expenses and food. It also paid for and installed a ramp at her brother's house when he was in a wheelchair.

Keller has another soft spot in her heart for Marines. She's married to a fighter pilot.

She and Capt. Eli Keller met at a Baltimore Orioles game shortly after her brother finished boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. His gray T-shirt with black block letters "USMC" started the conversation. He's been stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort for five years. Their 2-year-old daughter, Ava, was born at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, but they were recently notified of orders to Japan for the next three years.

The pilot answers to "Sloth" when his F-18 Hornet is a speck in our skies. But at home, he's Daddy, pushing Ava in a stroller as he and Jenifer run. Jenifer jokes that she's always run a few miles here and there so she can eat whatever she wants.

She's not dreading the steep challenge of the bridge that defines Charleston's skyline.

"You know what – it's nowhere near what these men and women go through every day," she said. "I have two able legs. I’m 6 feet tall. I will get over that bridge as quick as I can."

She and her girlfriends will make a weekend of fun out of it. But her mind will be on that Sunday after church in the parking lot at Carteret Street United Methodist.

"My little brother almost gave his life," Keller said. "I can give some sweat."

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