On his last visit home about a month ago, 1st Lt. Phillip Neel prayed for his enemies and cried at the dinner table for the souls of his soldiers.
He took Mac, the family's year-old yellow Labrador retriever, to the small waterfall on their Fredericksburg ranch and watched the dog dive in after a stick. He did a lot of the things he'd been doing since childhood before heading back to Iraq, family members said.
Neel was killed Sunday in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, after attackers hurled grenades at his squad, according to the Department of Defense.
"All of us are very tight," Neel's sister Kelly Foster said Tuesday. "With Phil gone, there's just going to be this huge, gaping hole that can't be filled."
The oldest boy among six children, Neel, 27, graduated from Fredericksburg High School in 1998. The family was not surprised when he enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper. His father, Leroy, is a retired Army colonel.
"Phil loved jumping out of planes," Foster said.
She said her brother was too complicated to sum up in a few words. In childhood spats, Neel was the calm one who would end arguments among the siblings with sage advice. He was honest, she said, even when that meant telling her she'd looked better.
He was a lanky 6-foot-2, with brown hair and brown eyes, "and he was always in control of himself."
He wanted to someday get married, become a lawyer and practice in a small town, Foster said.
After his first tour of duty, Neel enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. There, his sister says, he worried that he would be kicked out early in his first year for too roughly pinning, hogtying and choking another cadet during a wrestling exercise. The other cadet lacked Neel's combat training.
His sister said Neel was a good student who earned no demerits. He was usually quiet and rarely the center of attention.
The day before graduation, at a practice formation, Neel decided to lighten the mood. He replaced the tall black plumes of his uniform's hat with a big fake crow and marched with it for half an hour, deadpan.
"Just motivating the troops, sir," Neel explained when an instructor questioned him afterward.
After graduation, Neel joined Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division, whose roughly 20,000 soldiers are serving in Baghdad.
Foster said her brother rarely talked about the war or the dangers he faced. On that last visit, his reserve crumbled, and he cried at the dinner table.
He told his family, "I pray every day for the souls of my men, because I know where I'm going, and I'm not sure they do."
Neel's last e-mail home was typical of the encouragement he offered his siblings:
"I hope you are all staying strong, because I know you are all being challenged by the things of this world. But it's how you deal with stuff that makes you who you are. Take care!
Published in Austin American-Statesman on Apr. 11, 2007.