Pfc. Andrew Keller gave fiance Marissa Jones 'enough love to last a lifetime'

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF MARISSA JONES - U.S. Army Pfc. Andrew Keller, who served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team stationed in Italy, toured the sights with his fiance Marissa Jones. A couple months later his unit was deployed to Afghanistan.Marissa Jones was the love of U.S. Army Pfc. Andrew Keller’s life.

The two 2008 Southridge High School graduates were nearly inseparable growing up.

“One of the most important things to Andrew was his relationship with Marissa,” said Jeff Keller, father of the 22-year-old Tigard soldier killed in action Aug. 15 in Afghanistan. “They were soul mates who found each other in eighth grade.

“It was just amazing to see him find that kind of happiness and have a love that is so real and lasting. It’s what life is all about.”

Sitting at the dining room table of the Jones family’s Beaverton home on Tuesday evening, Marissa shared her love story that began in the winter nine years ago.

One of her friends was dating one of Andrew’s friends at the time. The Highland Park Middle School eighth-grader started to hear stories about a boy named Andrew Keller, who was an eighth-grader at Conestoga Middle School.

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“I thought about him when I was sitting in my bed at night,” she said with a smile. “At the time, I had just heard good things about him. I remember thinking, ‘I want him to be my boyfriend.’”

Marissa and Andrew started trading messages on instant messenger, and a week later decided to meet for the first time in person. Andrew planned to hang out with one of Marissa’s best guy friends, who happened to live at the bottom of the hill on Southwest Night Hawk Drive in Murrayhill, just down the street from Marissa’s childhood home.

The two instantly hit it off, Marissa said. “He asked me out officially at The Hoop dance in early December, and we starting hanging out all the time.

“We became best friends. I felt he brought out the best in me, even back then. He was just so kind and fun and was just the sweetest person I could have imagined for myself.”

The feeling was mutual, according to Andrew’s family.

“I remember how proud he was for me to meet her for the first time when he was playing eighth-grade basketball at Westview High School,” Jeff Keller recalled. “When he was done playing, he took me over to meet Marissa, who was over in the corner with all her friends being goofy.

“A week later, she came over to our house with her mother, Deby, and that was the start of this amazing relationship. The love those two have for each other is what everyone dreams of finding one day. They have a storybook romance. It was a beautiful relationship of two people growing up together.”

A packaged deal

The young sweethearts were delighted to start their freshman year together at Southridge High School.

“It was always Andrew and Marissa — we were a packaged deal,” Marissa said. “We were never apart and had the same group of friends that was like one, big family.”

For fun they would go snowboarding, hang out after school and on weekends, hit golf balls, go to the movies and eat, a lot.

They also supported each other in extracurricular activities. He was on the Skyhawk football team, and she was on the dance team. By their senior year, they both were selected as team captains.

“When I was 14, I knew he was the one for me,” Marissa said. “I was like, ‘All right, we’re good to go for the rest of my life.’”

As graduation neared, Marissa knew she wanted to attend Oregon State University.

“We planned to finish school, then get married and do all that stuff,” she MILES VANCE - Andrew Keller, who served as captain of the Southridge High School football team his senior year, was named Most Valuable Player by his teammates.

When a shoulder injury robbed Andrew of his dream of playing college football, Marissa said Andrew was “lost for a little while. He talked about going into the Army, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do.”

As she began working toward her bachelor’s of science degree in merchandising management, Andrew decided to try the school thing and went to Linn Benton Community College to be near Marissa.

“School just wasn’t for him,” Marissa recalled. “He even went to Eugene for a while to see if he would like that.”

She remembers getting a call in October of 2010 during her junior year, when Andrew told her he signed the papers to join the Army and was going in March.

“I was scared, but I thought it was going to be good for him,” Marissa said. “I told him, ‘If that’s what you want to do, then let’s do it.’

“He needed the Army because one thing he excelled at was being a leader. He liked the structure, having a team and a goal and feeling like he was accomplishing something important.”

A new chapter

During her junior year of college, Marissa got to know her letter carrier. “When he went to Basic Training, I would wait for the mailman every day to come and drop off a letter,” she said. “When I saw him, I’d run.”

Andrew and Marissa wrote to each other every day and talked on the phone whenever Andrew was allowed to call.

In May of 2011, Marissa traveled to Fort Benning in Georgia with Andrew’s mother, Kim Keller, to make the most of Andrew’s 36-hour pass from Basic Training. She traveled with the entire Keller family to attend his graduation from Basic Training that July.

“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” Marissa said of watching the military ceremony. “He was so proud and so happy to share it with his family and I. It was so amazing to have that time, and get a feel for what Army life was like.”

It was during the four days the family spent with him after graduation that Andrew shared his plan to go Airborne, which meant he would be stationed in Caserma Ederle, Vicenza, Italy, and assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Andrew went through the Army Airborne School at Fort Benning and was able to call or text Marissa on his cellphone any time he had a free minute from training. He was allowed to return to his Tigard home for two weeks before shipping out to Italy to join his team with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment.

“It was brutal and so hard being so far away from each other,” Marissa said.

Through calls, Skype sessions and texts, the couple stayed in touch and started making plans for Marissa to visit him in Italy for just over two weeks.

The day came this past March. The day after Marissa finished her finals for spring term, she got on a plane.

“Probably my very favorite part of getting the opportunity to go was getting to meet his friends,” she said. “They were all like brothers and had a bond like something I haven’t seen with other groups of people. They truly care and rely on each other. They really are a family and welcomed me in so fast. Andrew was surrounded by such amazing guys.”

Shortly after her return to Corvallis to finish her senior year, Andrew asked Marissa to come back to Italy for a second visit — this time for two weeks in May.

“I feel so blessed and so happy that I was able to go back the two times I did within that short period of time,” she said. “He was literally the happiest he’d ever been when I was with him. He was so at ease with who he was, confident and gave me the most love you could ever imagine getting from someone.”

Marissa was prepared when she learned his unit would be deployed to Afghanistan in early July.

“We had prepared ourselves for it and started making plans for our future,” she said. “When his deployment was over, he would be stationed somewhere in the U.S. We planned to get married and me moving with him to his next duty station. I didn’t care where it was as long as we were together.”

The two skyped and chatted on Facebook nearly every day Andrew was in Afghanistan, unless he was on a 48-hour mission. “Our deal was he would tell me everything, so I could be there for him,” Marissa said. “He shared everything, all his thoughts and (he) was so honest and open with me. He needed someone to tell things to, and I was so ready for it all.”

Andrew’s cellphone didn’t work in Afghanistan, but during his final mission, he decided to see if he could get service on a mountaintop. He quickly sent text messages to his family and Marissa, letting them know he was fine and that he loved them.

Andrew was killed that same day, leaving both the Keller and Jones families devastated.

“He was my entire future,” Marissa said. “We had the most amazing life planned out for us. I couldn’t have dreamt of someone more perfect for me. I felt so lucky to have such an amazing man in my life.

“Every time I saw him I would get butterflies. I was always so excited to be with him. He was so loving, and his heart was so big. He gave everything he had, and his love was so intense. He gave me enough love to literally last an entire lifetime.”

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