SAN ANTONIO, Texas — As the cold winds of December swirled overhead, Army Col. Michael McNeill, Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, contracting enabler cell director, closed in on his target, stealthily passing through a crowd.
Col. McNeill, a native of Robeson County who has been a soldier for 23 years, is currently in the middle of his deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan.
But on the chilly morning of Dec. 8, the colonel had his sights set on a different objective: launching a surprise visit to see his son, Airman 1st Class Justin McNeill, graduate from basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland.
The colonel’s opportunity to reach his “target” occurred at the coin ceremony, the first part of Air Force’s basic military training graduation, held at the Pfingston Reception Center grounds.
Justin, lined up in rank with the other Airmen, received a gentle tap on the shoulder. Turning around, Justin saw his father, who he thought was still 8,000 miles away.
“This feels incredible,” Justin said, tearfully embracing his dad. “I can’t believe he’s here.”
The two McNeills have always been inseparable – sharing workouts, competitions and daily phone calls during Michael’s five deployments. But with Michael in Kabul, and Justin at BMT, their communication had been cut off over the past six months.
“I haven’t seen my dad since June and that was the hardest part of BMT, honestly,” Justin said. “The rest of training was easy compared to that. You just do what you’re told.”
The separation was equally hard on Michael, who’s always relied on his son as a workout partner and competitor.
“We always talked twice a day, we’d do workouts together and train together. This is the longest we’ve ever been apart without being able to speak,” Michael said. “On my previous deployments, I’ve at least been able to talk to Justin.”
With Justin’s graduation, the McNeills will now share more than a typical father-son bond. The airman is headed to pararescue indoctrination training at the Battlefield Airman School House, located at JBSA-Lackland Medina Annex, where he looks to follow in his father’s footsteps, who is also in a special operations career field.
“Justin has grown up watching me jump out of airplanes and go through Special Forces training his whole life,” Michael said. “I’ve been through aquatics and scuba training, and Justin has been through all sorts of challenges alongside me. He’s been through having his hands and feet tied in the swimming pool, going on XTerra trail running races, mountain biking and triathlons. Watching him grow up, and now choosing this path – it’s been awesome to see.”
For Michael, simply watching his son’s graduation was a miracle. The colonel had to maneuver his way home from a country halfway across the globe while timing his 15-day rest and relaxation tour to align perfectly with Justin McNeill’s graduation week.
“If he’d have gotten his graduation date any earlier, the ceremony would have been too soon in my deployment for me to make it back in time to see it,” Michael explained. “Everything worked out perfectly. I’m just so blessed to be here.”
In addition to the logistics, Michael and the rest of the family struggled to keep the surprise a secret from Justin for months.
“I wanted so badly to tell him I was coming to see him,” Michael chuckled. “But this is worth it.”
Jennifer McNeill, Justin’s mother, played a vital role in plugging any intelligence leaks from the rest of the family.
“Justin’s sister almost slipped up and told him their dad was coming back a couple times,” she noted while laughing.
“We just couldn’t wait to see Justin’s face when Michael came home.”
During Michael’s stay stateside, the family enjoyed quality time watching TV, binging on “all the potato chips” they can eat, and getting to the gym. After that, Michael was to head back to Afghanistan and Justin to pararescue training.
After spending decades married to a special operations officer, Jennifer is confident in her son’s career choice.
“I always knew he could do it,” Jennifer said. “Justin has always been good at helping people, so I’m excited to see how he does.”
As for Michael, the colonel had glowing remarks on his son’s ability.
“To see him here, at the start of his career, right as I’m at the end of mine, it’s so special,” Michael noted. “We’re passing the torch.”
Looking at his father, as hundreds of fellow graduates and families bustled around them, Justin couldn’t imagine a different career path.
“I just thought this was meant to be,” he said.