Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Christopher T. Neiberger dies 'of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device'

A 2003 Gainesville High School graduate who was serving as an infantryman in the U.S. Army was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad early Monday, according to the Department of Defense.

Army officials on Monday told the family of Chris Neiberger, 22, a Gainesville Eagle Scout who had been on a 15-month deployment in Iraq since last September, that Neiberger had been killed earlier that day. According to the Department of Defense, Neiberger died of wounds suffered from an improvised explosive device.

News about Neiberger's death trickled down to family members slowly this week, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, Neiberger's older sister.

Chris Neiberger's father, Richard Neiberger, a pediatric nephrologist at Shands at the University of Florida, and his mother, Mary Neiberger, were volunteering at a Paul Newman camp for chronically ill children in Orlando when two Army representatives knocked on the door of their northwest Gainesville home Monday morning.

Chris' older brother, Eric Neiberger, answered the door. But since Army protocol calls for Army representatives to notify only the next of kin of a death, it was hours before the officers reached the Neibergers in Orlando to tell them.

"Of course, I assumed the worst," said Eric Neiberger, 23. "But I didn't know for sure until five hours after they came here."

After driving back to Gainesville, Richard and Mary Neiberger drove back to Orlando on Tuesday to break the news to Chris' grandmother. Friends and family members filed into the Neibergers' northwest Gainesville home with casserole dishes and condolences for Chris' three siblings.

They remembered a 22-year-old who was deeply empathetic and wickedly funny, and who was truly happy serving in the Army.

Robert Neiberger, 20, said his brother had always wanted to be a soldier.

"We spent a lot of time when we were little blowing up anthills," Robert Neiberger said. "We don't have many ants in our backyard, and that's mostly thanks to Chris."

Neiberger-Miller, 36, said she was still surprised when her brother, who loved traveling, writing short stories and hanging out at Maude's Classic Cafe in Gainesville, enlisted in the Army after two years at Florida State University.

"I have a picture of him from FSU wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt with hair down to his shoulders," Neiberger-Miller said. "I thought he'd be the first Neiberger to form a branch of the Socialist party, and the Army didn't seem like a great fit with that."

But Chris Neiberger, a strong supporter of women's rights and democratic government, told his family he enlisted to protect those rights for other people.

Army life suited him well, his family said. The last time they spoke to him over the phone a few weeks ago, he talked about seeking an appointment to West Point after returning from Iraq and making the Army a career.

"The last time we talked, it seemed that he was really satisfied with his life," Neiberger-Miller said. "I think he was getting tired of being over there, but he felt a tremendous sense of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, and he really felt like what he was doing over there was making a difference."

Neiberger last came home for a two-week leave period for Christmas. While he was home, he spoke to kids in his former Boy Scout troop about his experiences in Iraq.

"The way he talked about it really struck me," said Tim Rogers, Chris Neiberger's former scout master. "He told me that he felt the Iraqi people were really grateful for our help, and that what he was doing over there was important and good."

On Monday night, Rogers said, he had to tell those same scouts that Neiberger had been killed.

Chris Neiberger will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery sometime in the near future, his family said.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Trinity United Methodist Church. The Rev. Dan Johnson, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, said he plans to talk about Chris' sense of humor, his kindness and the generosity he showed on church mission trips to orphanages in Mexico and medical facilities in Guatemala and Honduras.

Johnson said he'll include a passage that emphasizes another key value of Chris's: "There is no greater love than this: When a man lays down his life for his friends."

From the Gainseville Sun