Posted on Thu, Jan. 25, 2007
Army sergeant loved country, planned to wed
Phillip McNeill's family said he loved his country so much that he died for it. He was just 22 when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Saturday.
BY JENNIFER MOONEY PIEDRA, jmooney@MiamiHerald.com
When Army Sgt. Phillip McNeill returned to South Florida after basic training, his friend Heather Smause surprised him with a cake and a box of S'mores Pop Tarts.
In September, just before McNeill left for his second tour of duty in Iraq, Smause surprised him again -- this time with a handmade dark-blue comforter to keep him warm.
She didn't expect it would be the last time they'd see each other.
''I wanted to give him something he'd have forever,'' said Smause, of Coral Springs, whose husband befriended McNeill at Taravella High. ``I thought he'd be coming home soon.''
But on Saturday, McNeill, a combat medic who lived in Sunrise, was killed when a roadside bomb detonated near his Humvee in Karmah, Iraq. He was 22. Seven other paratroopers also died that day in two incidents, the U.S. Department of Defense said.
McNeill is the second Broward serviceman to die in recent weeks. U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Timothy Weiner, 35, of Lauderhill, was killed Jan. 7 when a car bomb exploded in Baghdad.
McNeill enlisted in 2003, and was based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
He was among several men in his family who joined the military, including his 24-year-old brother, Christopher, a Marine veteran, and his late grandfather, Air Force Col. Jesse McNeill.
''He wanted to be over there in Iraq,'' said his stepfather, Jeff Fiely, an Army reservist. ``He thought it was the right thing to do.''
McNeill grew up in Lexington, Ky., and Cincinnati before moving to South Florida as a teenager.
He lived with his father, David McNeill, in Coral Springs and graduated from Taravella High. His mother, Angela Fiely, lives in a suburb of Cincinnati.
He planned to marry Cassandra Burress, a fellow Taravella High grad, when he returned to South Florida.
''He was going to introduce me to his parents when he came back,'' said Burress, 21, of Coral Springs.
Burress recalls meeting McNeill when she was 15.
''I knew I loved him since I saw him,'' she said through tears. ``I have never connected with someone so deeply. He was my best friend.''
He will also be missed by close friend Jennifer Hartman, 21, who has fond memories of McNeill's high school days, including times when they would trick-or-treat in Coral Springs and hang out at friends' houses.
''Phil was always making everyone laugh,'' said Hartman, who lives in Texas. ``He was always cracking jokes.''
McNeill was among a tight-knit group of friends from high school who kept in touch, Hartman said.
They looked forward to planning a reunion after McNeill returned from Iraq.
''Now we won't ever get to see him again,'' Hartman said.
For his grandmother, Lillian McNeill, her feelings of sadness are overcome by feelings of great pride.
''He loved his country, so much that he had to die for it,'' she said. ``But I'm sure he died with honor.''
When McNeill was a child, he regularly visited his grandmother in Owingsville, Ky.
A lover of the outdoors, McNeill was always fascinated by the rural setting -- especially the large pine tree on the side of his grandmother's house.
McNeill loved climbing the tree and snacking on peanut butter sandwiches while sitting on its branches, his grandmother said.
He also loved wading through a nearby creek in search of snakes.
''He wanted to be a herpetologist at one time,'' his grandmother said. ``He just loved snakes.''
McNeill called his grandmother every other week from Iraq. The last time she spoke to him was about two weeks ago.
He said he wouldn't be able to call for a few months.
''I didn't ask any questions,'' she said. ``I told him I'd wait for him to call as soon as he could.''