Sergeant James MacNeil
As a soldier, Sgt. James Patrick MacNeil was competent and professional. As a person, he was a kind young man with a big heart who had earned the respect of his community.
Sgt MacNeil, a native of Glace Bay, N.S., died on 21 June 2010 when an improvised explosive device detonated as he climbed from his armoured vehicle to begin a foot patrol near the village of Nakhonay in the Panjwayi District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
When Sgt MacNeil's body was brought to the tight-knit Cape Breton community of Glace Bay, thousands turned out to pay their respects. They lined the streets to honour one of their own.
"The whole town stopped," Sheldon O'Neill told the Cape Breton Post. "Everyone was broken up by his death. He was a very beautiful person," said O'Neill, a Cape Breton musician, who, along with his Brent Watkins and their band, 5th Gear, wrote a song - Coming Home, Jimmy's Song, in memoriam of Sgt MacNeil.
Born in Glace Bay on 17 July 1981, Sgt MacNeil attended Bridgeport Elementary School and Glace Bay High School, graduating in 1999. He enlisted with the Canadian Forces in Sydney, N.S, in January 2000. After completing the Combat Engineer course at the Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering, Sgt MacNeil was posted to 2 Combat Engineer Regiment at CFB Petawawa in Ontario.
Sgt. MacNeil served in numerous different positions during his time with 2CER, including driver, gunner, storeman and section commander. While competent in all of those positions, he excelled as a leader.
In 2009, he received the top master corporal award for outstanding junior leadership in 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group. Later that year, he was promoted to Sergeant.
Sgt MacNeil was into his fourth rotation of Afghanistan, serving the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group when he died.
Brig-Gen Jonathan Vance said the men under Sgt MacNeil's command looked up to him for his sense of humour and leadership.
"(He was) the epitome of excellence and professionalism," said Brig-Gen Vance. "He was blessed with a permanent smile and eyes that could not conceal the mischief that he was no doubt contemplating."
Sgt MacNeil's friend and fellow combat engineer Maj Jim Smith told the Canadian Press that the well-liked Cape Bretoner would be missed.
"To a man, we were all affected and many continue to struggle and cope with his death. We continue to fight the good fight in his honour, in his memory. We all must believe that we do this for him," said Maj Smith. "But I can assure you, he was well-liked and well-respected by all his officers, peers and soldiers alike."
Sgt MacNeil returned to Afghanistan following his first deployment as a way to serve Canada and to help the Afghan people. During his career, Sgt MacNeil received the South-West Asia Service Medal and the General Campaign Star – Southwest Asia.
Even though Sgt MacNeil loved what he did and believed he could make a difference by serving with the C.F., family remained his priority, and rather than travel to far-flung destinations, when he had holidays, Sgt MacNeil always went home.
And a day before his death, Sgt MacNeil proposed to his girlfriend, Laura Boutilier, a Glace Bay teacher. Sgt MacNeil's cousin Kathy MacKinnon told the Canadian Press Sgt MacNeil was "the baby of all the cousins. They all called him their baby boy; it is a devastating blow.
"When he was home, every family member got to see him," she said. "He meant everything to his family, and his family meant everything to him."
Following Sgt MacNeil's death, his friends and family started the Sgt James Patrick MacNeil Mixed Ball Tournament. Oceanview Education Centre, a Glace Bay junior high school, meanwhile, named a soccer field and a basketball tournament after him. Money raised at both tournaments goes towards scholarships for Glace Bay students.
It's fitting that Sgt MacNeil is remembered through sport as he played baseball, hockey and rugby. He coached little league baseball, and in Afghanistan, he played soccer with local children. And despite his size and athleticism, he was kind, caring and considerate.
Nadine Navarole, another of Sgt MacNeil's many cousins, said, "He had a way of making each and every individual member of his family feel like they were his favourite."
Sgt MacNeil—Little Jimmy—is survived by his fiancé, Laura Boutilier and her daughter, Ava Grace; his father James (Jimmy Sr.) and stepmother Helen; his mother, Velma MacNeil and stepfather Allan Burke; his stepsister, Sharon Burke, and his stepbrother, Donald Rogers; his aunts and uncles and his many cousins.