Image courtesy: Paul Morse
On March 1, 2007, Enterprise High School was hit by a massive tornado, killing eight students in a tragedy that stunned Alabama and the entire nation. With the help of charities, churches, politicians, and celebrities, citizens of Enterprise picked up the pieces and inspired many around the country. Yet more than three years later, the city is again in need of our thoughts, prayers, and support. On July 24, Enterprise High School lost its second graduate of the summer on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
Pfc. Andrew Hand moved to Enterprise in 2001, when his dad became the head coach for the Wildcats high school football team. Despite excelling on the field, The Dothan Eagle reports that he was never convinced about an important special teams concept.
"One day in practice he was returning punts. Andrew got lit up and had a concussion. He didn’t learn the fair catch. As a soldier, there was no fair catch, no do-overs, no special make-up. We went from me teaching him how to be safe on the field to him giving his life to protect me and our country," Enterprise High School head football coach Kevin Collins, a former assistant to Hand's father, said on Saturday.
Pfc. Hand was on his third overseas deployment when he was killed in Qalat, Afghanistan, by an improvised explosive device planted by terrorists. As posted on The Unknown Soldiers shortly after the incident, he died alongside Staff Sgt. Conrad Mora, 24, Sgt. Daniel Lim, 23, and Spc. Joseph Bauer, 27. The 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade is attached to the 20th Engineer Battalion in Afghanistan, which does dangerous work clearing bombs all around the war zone. In a recent incident, soldiers discovered a shrapnel-filled roadside bomb disguised as a bag of candy in an Afghan village filled with children.
"By the third tour, he knew what he was in for," [longtime friend Thame] Peters said. "He turned down a desk job in Afghanistan to search for bombs. He was a soldier’s soldier and a man’s man. He was the best father and a great friend."
Hand, who Debbie Ingram reports was an avid guitar player and man of the outdoors, planned to spend more time with his wife and two young boys after returning from Afghanistan. The decorated 25-year-old soldier, who also leaves behind his parents and two siblings, is being laid to rest Monday at Alabama National Cemetery in Montevallo.
Shortly after getting his diploma from Enterprise High School, Spc. Brendan Neenan, who was deeply moved by the 9/11 attacks, decided to follow the proud footprints of his father and grandfather by joining the military. As his company commander in the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division wrote shortly after the 21-year-old soldier was killed by an improvised explosive device on June 7 in Jelawar, Afghanistan, there was never any doubt that Neenan loved serving his country.
"Spc. Neenan was one of those troopers in the company who always had a smile on his face, who could always find the sense of humor in things, especially during the long, arduous days in the Arghandab," Capt. Jimmy Razuri wrote. "I'll always remember him just like that."
Neenan's remains were interred at Arlington National Cemetery nine days after he died on the battlefield. The young soldier, who held deep religious beliefs and is remembered for always putting the men and women beside him first, leaves behind his father, grandparents, two siblings, and many other relatives.
Shortly after Enterprise suffered its latest heartbreak, the city's school superintendent spoke to The Dothan Eagle.
"Our city has lost a lot of young people," Dr. Jim Reese said, referring to the loss of the soldiers, eight students in a 2007 tornado that struck the high school, and others due to illness and accidents. "Any time you lose young people, it’s just devastating. It’s another example of just how fragile life is."
After visiting Enterprise High School on March 4, 2007, President George W. Bush told teenagers grieving their eight fellow students that "out of devastation can come hope and a better tomorrow." In the coming weeks, the Hand and Neenan families will receive private letters from President Barack Obama, expressing deep gratitude for the service and sacrifice of their loved ones. No community should have to mourn so many young souls in such a short period. Yet even amid grief, Enterprise, Alabama, is showing resilience that no tornado or roadside bomb could ever shatter. Instead of a city in ruins, it has become a city of heroes.
Note: Photo of Spc. Brendan Neenan (left) is courtesy: Facebook. Image of Pfc. Andrew Hand (right) is courtesy: Jerry Parris and ABC 33/40.