Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Phillip I. Neel killed dies of injuries from grenade attack

Fredericksburg on Monday mourned 1st Lt. Phillip I. Neel, a local soldier recalled for compassion and patriotism, who died a day earlier during a grenade attack in Balad, Iraq, according to the Department of Defense.

"As a community, we're all stunned by his death. It really brings the war more into reality for us," said Natalie Smith, who taught English to Neel at Fredericksburg High School.

Smith described the fallen son of Col. Leroy and Kathy Neel as "an amazing young man and a role model for others. He just had the biggest heart."

The Neel family said they had few details surrounding Phillip's death, which they learned of Sunday.

The dangers of combat were something not discussed by Phillip Neel, who was previously deployed as a paratrooper to Kosovo, and was an infantry officer in Iraq. "He would not speak of hazard," said Leroy Neel. "He felt honored to serve. In his mind, and in his family's mind, he was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to do."

He was home two weeks ago to see his family who moved to the Hill Country from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1996.

LeRoy Smith called Phillip's arrival home "a wonderful surprise" that his six kids kept secret from their parents.

"He didn't get to decide when, but we were all here because it occurred over a spring break," said Leroy Neel. It's tough to get a family of eight together, but we feel blessed and everyone got to spend time with him."

Lieutenant Neel, a 2005 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, officials said.

A Department of Defense statement issued Monday said Neel, 27, died of wounds suffered when his unit came in contact with enemy forces using grenades, and that his death is under investigation.

Another former teacher of Neel's, Brett Williams, recalled the 1998 graduate as congenial with classmates, conscientious about studies and a player on a local traveling soccer team.

"He was a great kid," said Williams, who had Neel in a technology class as a junior and in drafting class as a senior.

Neel's death was a sober reminder of war's cost.

"It's inevitable that sooner or later you hear of losses of past students, but this is the first one I've heard of that concerned a military loss in Iraq," said Williams. "You hear the news ... but you just don't think of it being someone you knew."

From the Express