Last updated: August 24. 2013 3:17PM - 2342 Views

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   SHAWNEE TOWNSHIP — When Chris Neff was 12 years old, he had a class assignment writing about what he would be when he grew up.    His first thought was that he’d be a farmer, the Rev. Charlotte Hefner said, but then Neff realized, like his dad and grandfather, he was already a farmer, so he needed a second job, maybe a teacher. Too much school, Neff figured. Plan C was where his heart lay, a soldier.    “It’s a dream I always wanted,” Chris wrote at the age of 12. “Even though I could be killed, I would die for my country.”    Under a brilliant blue sky Friday on one of the first days of fall, more than 200 stood at Neff’s grave in Shawnee Cemetery missing his smirk and honoring his sacrifice.    Neff, 19, died Sept. 19 from wounds from an explosion while on patrol in Baghdad. Family and friends gathered to honor him at his funeral at Shawnee United Methodist Church and his burial in the cemetery just behind it.    From the time he was born, he was like sunshine, so many who knew him well said during his funeral earlier that morning. Being around him made you feel better. And that smirk made you wonder what secret he was hiding.    Maj. Gen. Robert Williams presented Neff’s parents with the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.    “Chris had a reputation of doing the right thing, even when no one was around to check. In the Army we call that duty,” Williams said. “We have a number of core values in the Army we expect our soldiers to live up to. He exemplified all of them: a sense of loyalty, personal courage, and selfless service. It is a great honor to me to wear the same uniform as him.”    Neff wore the uniform of the U.S. Army well. In picture after picture, Neff stood proud, even in fatigues and those no-nonsense thick black-rimmed glasses worn during basic training.    He enlisted before he graduated from Apollo Career Center in 2006 and returned to school to talk to students to encourage them to follow their dreams as he had.    His friends ended up being the friends of his sister, Shannon, a senior at Apollo this year. She remembered her brother as her best friend in a letter read by Hefner during the service that lasted an hour and a half. He would always give his advice, and listen after Shannon hadn’t listened to him and messed something up.    Platoon members remembered a “true tanker,” an earnest but gullible soldier who could be counted on and who knew and performed his job well. And one who could eat.    Neff earned a place on a restaurant plaque, Sgt. Roy Smith said, by eating the establishment’s $25 burger — three pounds of meat, a big bun, a little bit of “rabbit food” and a heap of fries. It took him 46 minutes, but he got the meal for free.    During training, Neff had forgotten to clean his driver’s hole in a tank. A superior told him he’d have to sleep outside without his sleeping bag, so Neff set about building what amounted to a nest for himself, pine needles and all. The men let him do his thing before they said they were kidding.    Neff gave a stare he was known for, before replying, “Dang, that sucks.”    Neff’s platoon members recalled a man, but the pictures on two large screens showed first a baby, still at St. Rita’s Medical Center and wrapped in blue, then later with his hair standing on end and in a onesie styled like a tuxedo. A first birthday in his high chair, in the sand at the beach, with his dad playing on a toy John Deere tractor.    Then growing up — showing off fangs in a Dracula costume, dressed as Santa Claus, getting off the school bus, driving a car, with a boutonniere and a date on his arm for a dance.    And then, grown up. Neff, in an Army of One T-shirt, sitting on that toy tractor again, with his knees up to his chin, a son and a soldier at once.

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