Tevlin: Veteran finds peace of mind in the gift of helping hands

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2012 - 5:42 PM

They had a routine of VA medical appointments ahead, but as they sat in their garden in south Minneapolis Friday morning, Sgt. Brian Neill and his wife, San, pointed to all the work that needed to be done on their century-old house.

Worn shingles draped over rotted soffits. The trim on the windows was peeling. The front sidewalk was cracked. Perhaps most bothersome to Neill was the color of the house, a pale tan that reminded him of the unending deserts of Iraq.

"The color of a Humvee," he said.

Once upon a time, Neill was fit and muscular. When his son Jennor was little, he could drape the kid's legs over his forearm and make him do hanging situps. At night, the two would do push-ups together. Back then, Neill was handy and took pride in his house.

"I did everything from sweep the floor to redo the electrical," said Neill. "I did it all."

Not any more.

Neill served with Bravo 134 BSB as a gunner and weapons expert. His family worried constantly about him, but Jennor was so eager to follow his dad's path as a soldier, he joined the Junior ROTC. But Jennor would never make it. Returning from a training event, the truck he was in was hit from behind and Jennor was ejected, suffered a head injury and was nearly killed.

Neill was in a danger zone in Iraq and could not come home, so San watched over Jennor with the help of her three older children, neighbors and Mark Thange, the head of the readiness group for Neill's military unit.

"Mark stepped up, and he stepped up big time," said Neill. "Big time."

While Jennor began to rehabilitate with the help of Courage Center, Neill began to feel the wear and tear of Iraq, the constant heat "like when you stick your head in the oven on Thanksgiving Day."

During his year-long stint in Iraq, which he began in 2006 at age 42 after 23 years in the National Guard, Neill suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, nerve damage and muscle and skeletal injuries. He was flown to Germany for treatment.

"They said there was nothing they could do for me," said Neill. "So they sent me home."

Home to watch the paint peel and the soffits rot on his house as San, whom he met 23 years ago while mowing her lawn, took care of everything.

"People ask me why I have so many calendars," said San. "One for Brian. One for Jennor. One for me."

She juggles the maze of doctors appointments for two disabled family members with short-term memory loss.

"If you put anything in the paper, put that I would be lost without her," said Neill. "She does so much for me, for us, and there is so much I want to do for her but I can't."

"Ohhhh," said San.

Asked what has been the hardest part of caring for her husband and son, San giggled. "Geez, everything."

Neill was wearing a hat that said "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Little red, white and blue pinwheels spun in the garden that San tends to work away the stress. The worst thing, Neill said, was first being away from home when his son was injured, then being away from his unit as they fought in Iraq. They eventually came back to a welcome home ceremony that Neill never got.

Until now.

The Neills' story got to Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. It especially resonated with Trista Matacastillo, who works at Habitat. She is a veteran, as is her husband.

"She knows what I'm going through and knows how my mind works," said Neill.

On Monday, Neill will get his homecoming, complete with color guard and singing group at American Legion Post 234. As a result of his experiences in Iraq, Neill requested a saved seat: "In the corner, near a door, back to the wall and I'm good," he said.

Then, volunteers for Habitat will get busy spiffing up the Neill home. A dozen veterans and some neighbors will put on new shingles, fix the foundation, paint the house and repair the walkway. The repairs are more extensive than Habitat does for normal fix-ups, said Matacastillo, but they are needed and "they are so deserving."

"To me, this is huge," said Neill. "Now I can sit here in the garden and not worry about this."

So, will he keep the same color, the color of desert sand and Humvees?

"No," said Neill. "Green."

Green, like a Minnesota forest.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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