Published March 25. 2013 12:00PM Updated March 26. 2013 6:24AM
Guilford — A son, a brother, a classmate and fellow soldier, Army Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel was "PK" to those who knew him best.
Many of those he touched and many others who only knew of him gathered to honor him Monday at a Mass of Christian Burial in St. George Catholic Church, where his parents are parishioners.
Pedersen-Keel, 28, a Florida native who grew up in Connecticut, died March 11 in Jalrez District, Afghanistan, when his unit was attacked by small arms fire. A commander, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, N.C. A second soldier, Staff Sgt. Rex L. Schad, 26, of Edmond, Okla., also was killed in the attack.
Highly decorated, Pedersen-Keel will be buried Wednesday with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both Connecticut Democrats, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and the state's lieutenant governor, Nancy Wyman, attended the Mass, which was celebrated by the Rev. James A. Shanley, St. George's pastor. The Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell, archbishop of Hartford, also presided.
Some mourners fought to contain tears, their bowed heads and trembling shoulders betraying emotion at the singing of "Amazing Grace" at the beginning of the service and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "On Eagles' Wings" at the service's end nearly 90 minutes later.
Residents of Madison, the town east of Guilford, also attended the service for Pedersen-Keel, whose mother, Helen Pedersen Keiser, and stepfather, Bob Keiser, moved to Madison about a decade ago, according to Madison First Selectman Fillmore McPherson.
Seeking to protect the family's privacy, the town had arranged a week earlier for residents to sign a condolence book kept at Town Hall and to address cards to "Parents of Captain Andrew Pedersen-Keel," care of the first selectman's office. McPherson said "a couple hundred people" signed the book, which he delivered to Pedersen-Keel's mother along with the cards following the funeral.
McPherson said Pedersen-Keel was eulogized by a classmate at West Point, Christopher Day, who described Pedersen-Keel as a passionate, fun-loving leader. Members of Pedersen-Keel's special forces unit served as pallbearers.
Some 20 to 30 members of the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization that attends military funerals as invited guests, stood vigil outside the church before, during and after the service, holding American flags.
Two of Pedersen-Keel's sixth-grade teachers at Moran Middle School in Wallingford recalled how their former student had invited them to his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"I remember I didn't like him at first; he was too cocky," Dave Filipek said. "But we became like family."
Deann Marin, the other teacher, recalled how Pedersen-Keel had endeared himself to a classmate confined to a wheelchair.
"He was the only one who would carry her books," she said.
Pedersen-Keel attended high school at the private Avon Old Farms School, where he was a dean's list student and an outstanding athlete, graduating in 2002. He entered the Army in May 2006 after earning a bachelor's degree in American legal studies at West Point. He was commissioned as an infantry officer.
During the first of his two deployments to Afghanistan, he led a platoon on more than 150 combat foot patrols and three air assault operations, according to the Army.
In 2011, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, where he served until his second deployment last August.
Pedersen-Keel received two Bronze Stars in addition to numerous other decorations. He will be posthumously awarded a third Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
He is also survived by his father, Henry Keel of Florida, a sister, Mary Elizabeth Keel, and his fiancee, Celeste Pizza.