McNeal thanked the students for being a friend to his 10-year-old son, Cole, while he was overseas and for sending cards throughout his yearlong deployment with the Georgia Army National Guard.
“I really, really appreciate your support,” McNeal said. “It made time go by faster. But, even more importantly, thank you for supporting Cole while I was gone.”
McNeal showed the students a presentation of photographs from his trip and shared items he brought home, including a hat men native to the region often wear, a scarf called a “shemagh,” and an encased preserved camel spider.
McNeal told the students he was based in Kabul, which has a population of about 4 million people, where his 174-man unit had several missions aimed at improving the quality of life for Afghani citizens.
“We helped train their police, we helped train their military, provided security as well as a lot of projects around the city — building schools, roads, things like that,” McNeal said. “It wasn’t your typical wartime mission like in the past. Though part of it was, it was more of a humanitarian mission as well.”
McNeal said the school his unit helped rebuild taught 12 subjects, including English and French, and had all female teachers. He said men from his unit went to the school at least once a month to bring school supplies, like notebooks and pencils, donated by companies like Staples.
Cole’s teacher, Terri Sims, said she was glad her students were able to learn about McNeal’s trip after sending letters and making a large poster to welcome him home.
“It meant a lot to Cole,” she said. “He wanted to give his classmates an opportunity to come sit and ask questions and it’s good for them. They need to realize it’s a sad thing, but they’re old enough to understand that freedom’s not free.”
Sims said McNeal also inspired her to start a school supplies drive in January, as the Afghani students return to school in March.
“Maybe for a brand new school year just like our students have brand new school supplies then their students would be able to have brand new school supplies,” Sims said.
Cole said he thought his dad’s presentation was great and was glad to have him home.
“When my dad was gone, it was hard because we couldn’t chat a lot as easily,” Cole said. “Sometimes, my mom would be on a business trip and my dad was still away so it was hard.”
But Cole has a lot of plans in store for his dad now that he’s home.
“Next Sunday, we’re going to Beef O’Brady’s to watch the Chicago Bears,” Cole said. “In three weeks, we’re traveling to Notre Dame to watch a football game.”
McNeal said he’s looking forward to the upcoming trips and events.
“None of the kids have ever been (to Notre Dame) so that’s going to be a blast,” McNeal said. “We have some vacations to catch up on and some birthdays to catch up on. We missed every holiday so we’ve got to do them double next year.”
McNeal said he and his wife Amy, and other children Megan, 15, and Ryan, 17, are all headed to Chicago to visit family before they come back to run the Gobble Jog (in Marietta) on Thanksgiving to repeat last year’s tradition of running the 5K.
He’ll also get to see Ryan compete with the Sequoyah boys cross country team, which is heading back to the state championship in Carrollton next weekend after finishing second in this year’s region championship.
Last year, the boys team set a goal to make it to the state championships in honor of McNeal, who found out he would be deployed last December.
“I am very excited about the opportunity to see the boys run again,” McNeal said.