Friday, November 2, 2007

My American Hero

This story I am about to tell is one close to my heart. It is one about a courageous man, Fran McNeil who has beaten all odds from a life-threatening injury that happened 4 years ago on September 11, 2003 aboard the USS George Washington off the coast of the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. A full story coverage made headlines in my weekly newspaper yesterday (the Transcript, North Reading, Massachusetts, November 1, 2007).
Fran McNeil resides in North Reading, MA and is the brother-in-law to my sister. This is what makes this story so personal and close to my heart. As I read the article, it recalled to memory, as if it were yesterday, the phone call from my sister, 4 years ago, telling me that Franny had been in a tragic accident and lay in a coma. That was all that was said. We held our breath which seemed like eternity.
What happened on that fateful day. On September 11, 2003 Franny McNeil, “Chief Mac” as he was known amongst his friends in the Navy, was doing a job he loved. During a training mission for pilot certification onboard the George Washington, Chief Petty Officer Francis P. McNeil and his unit of a dozen or more mechanics were working on an airplane on the flight deck where Franny was the deck coordinator. As a pilot was attempting to land an F/A-18 Hornet, the arresting wire that caught the jet’s tailhook snapped. The jet skidded into the ocean and the pilot safely ejected. But in it’s wake, the thick medal cable tore across the flight deck striking Franny in the head and arms. The force of the snapped cable damaged two other planes and injured four other sailors but none as seriously as Fran. The heavy-duty helmet he was wearing saved his life; the helmet which Franny now has in his possession with a six-inch diameter hole in the top of it.
Two weeks later and still in a coma, Franny’s mother and father who were at his side at the Trauma Center noticed something different that day about their son. A few hours later Franny emerged from the coma. Franny’s father called his son’s Commanding Officer to tell him “Chief Mac wants to see you”. As Captain E. Mark Chicoine (now retired) entered the room, Chief Mac’s eyes tracked him from right to left and under the most devastating of circumstances took his right hand and brought it to his forehead attempting to salute his Commanding Officer.
After months of recovery in VA, Franny was transported to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, MA where he stayed for quite a while until his discharge to go home. Franny had high hopes that he would walk again someday. He said he would not retire from the U.S. Navy…a job he loved for 22 years…until he could do so on his own two feet.
That day has arrived. On September 13, 2007 “Chief Mac” returned to his old hangar at Norfolk Naval Station for a special retirement ceremony in his honor where hundreds were gathered. The receiving line was one and a half hours long which was Franny’s favorite part of the ceremony. He enjoyed talking to his old friends and shipmates as well as those who had worked for him and his superior officers, including his Commanding Officer who was one of the guest speakers.
As Franny walked slowly down the red carpet and up to the podium to address those gathered in the VAW-120 Hangar, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Those who were the proudest of them all were his mother and father, sister and brother-in-law, and his 13-year-old daughter.
For his bravery and selfless devotion to duty, Chief Mac was presented the Meritorious Service Medal. He was given a special plaque in honor of his retirement wishing him “fair winds and following seas”. And in respect and affection from fellow sailors and pilots for Chief Mac was the naming of a plane in his honor. A tradition typically reserved for pilots whose name and rank appear beneath the pilot’s window was inscribed “AMC F.P McNeil Chief Mac”. It provides an opportunity for those who knew Fran to recount the story of his bravery to those who have come after him.
It has been a long road for Franny. He has overcome both brain and spinal cord damage, fractured sinuses, the loss of his pinkie finger on his right hand and he also has a plate in his arm. He continues physical therapy as an outpatient at Spaulding Rehab and works out at the YMCA three times a week using all of the machines and then a one hour walk on the treadmill.
But in spite of it all, Franny strives to gain the strength required to attain his second goal; to learn to drive again as well as live on his own. Franny has become increasingly independent in his daily routine. And of course one day Franny plans to ride that Harley Davidson motorcycle he bought a few weeks before the accident.
I salute you Franny McNeil. We all do. You are our American Hero.

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