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Tragedy changes youth's opinion of Army - The Pilot Independent: News

Tragedy changes youth's opinion of Army

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Posted: Friday, August 23, 2002 12:00 am

Editor's note: The following letter was written by Krista Kelly McNeill, 16, and sent to her brother's battalion commander as an open letter to the Army.

Krista was the youngest sister of Spc. Michael J. McNeill of the 317th Engineer Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized). Following a rotation at the National Training Center in the California desert, McNeill was preparing vehicles for rail load back to Fort Benning, Ga., when he was struck by a car.

Dear Commander:

It is amazing how a person's life can change in a matter of minutes. It is amazing how one incident can change your views forever.

In my case it was a death in the family. I lost my brother, Spc. Michael James (Hogue) McNeill, on May 12. This incident has changed my feelings about the military and military life, forever.

I remember the day my brother got hurt very clearly. It was May 5. I returned home from school to see my father walking out the door with a suitcase in one hand and a plane ticket confirmation in the other. I was informed that my brother had been struck by a car, going full speed, while he was crossing a street on foot with two of his Army buddies. He was not expected to make it through the night.

My father left immediately. That is where it all began. From the minute my father and brother's wife arrived, they were treated like royalty. The Army was right there by their side, no matter what they needed. The Army provided them with a place to stay, transportation and what was needed most of all: a shoulder to cry on.

Before this point, I never thought of military people as being compassionate and caring. But as I came to learn as things went on, they are more caring, understanding and compassionate than most civilian people.

A week passed, and suddenly, on May 12, my brother breathed his last breath. He had passed away. At this point, I thought that the Army would no longer be helpful or cooperative with my family. I figured they would think that since my brother had passed away, that there was no more use in trying to please anyone. I figured they would try to save money any way they could. But, as I later learned, this was not the case at all.

They helped my family return home and made them as comfortable as possible right up until the end. I would have thought that the military would think about nothing other than their own wants and needs, but once again, they proved me wrong.

Apparently, they put my brother on full retirement with total disability before he died so that his beautiful wife and their soon expected child would be taken care of. This touched me deeply.

The thing that touched me the most was my brother's funeral itself. The military paid for almost all of the expenses and helped a great deal with the planning of the services. The day of the funeral is imbedded so deeply in my heart. It was May 19 to be exact. Everyone gathered at the funeral home to pay their last respects to my brother. Michael's body was soon being loaded into the hearse and proceeded, followed by many cars, to the Lakeview Cemetery.

As I followed the hearse, we entered the cemetery to see a lone man, in uniform, holding a bugle under his arm. With great discipline and ceremony, he saluted the hearse as it went by and turned, with the hearse, 180 degrees as it proceeded to the burial site.

At the burial site, the preacher said a few more words, and a silence fell all about. After the passage of a few moments, seven soldiers in uniform with rifles shouldered came marching in perfect synchronization and stopped a short distance away. They raised their rifles, and each of them fired three shots into the air with the sound of each shot piercing my heart, bringing out all the love and respect that was felt for my brother. Once again, silence fell about. Then off in the distance was heard a beautiful noise, rolling off the end of the young man's bugle. Each note slowly tearing away at me, making it easier to let go. Each note bringing the remembrance of my brother and how he served his country, his family, his God.

Intense is the only word to describe those few minutes of pain, remembrance and love that came with the playing of Taps. The playing stopped. Then the six soldiers, unarmed, came marching in unison without a single misstep up to my brother's casket. Perfectionists, they were, folding the flag ever so carefully that had once lain upon my brother's casket, making sure not so much as a thread ever touched the ground.

A single Soldier marched up to my brother's wife, Jenna, and placed the flag upon her lap, presenting it to her on behalf of the president of the United States, and with great reverence and respect, he stood in a final salute to her. But then, something very unusual happened. As with Jenna, a single soldier approached my brother's mother and my father and presented them with flags also, ones that were already neatly folded and placed in fine wooden boxes, decorated with the United States Seal and containing all of Michael's ribbons.

These did not come from the government's money. These came from the pockets of the men who served with my brother in his battalion. Knowing of Mike's beginnings and the strange turns his life had taken wherein he had two families, containing eight sisters, all of whom he loved dearly, they had raised the money to purchase these for his parents.

This showed me that the military is one big family. In the military, whether you like the people you are around or not, you do everything in your power to protect one another and their loved ones. What an honor I found this to be, to have been a part of Michael's life, someone who had served his country so diligently.

This event has changed my life and touched my heart forever. I have grown a deep love for the military and those who are a part of it. I realized that they are there to help me. The military is one big family that I may hope some day to be a part of. I hope to one day walk in Michael's footsteps, my father's only son, on a path also taken by Mike's father and his father before him. My respect and admiration for the military has grown immensely.

I want to say thanks to all of the people who have helped me, protected me and loved me enough to go to war for me, and a special thanks to the men who have helped my brother's memory live on. This is for you.

Krista Kelly McNeill is from Johnson City, Ill.

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