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Friday, August 12, 2022

Part Two: The Army / Navy Game; It’s a Big Deal

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“It was a great weekend, but the game…” That was the response I got from retired Army Colonel Jeff O’Neal after his return from the annual Army / Navy football game. He and his wife Michelle spent the weekend in New Jersey at the game and had the opportunity to visit their son, Jackson, who is a junior at West Point. Army lost a close game, 17-13, to the Navy Midshipmen who were playing their final game of the 2021 season. Army’s season will end today when the Black Knights play the Missouri Tigers in the Lockheed-Martin Armed Forces Bowl today in Fort Worth, Texas. That will be the culmination of a good season for Army, but make no question, their annual battle with Navy is perhaps more meaningful to Army than any bowl game. For both academies, the Army / Navy game is, “A big deal.”

Each year, football fans anticipate the special uniforms the Army and Navy players will wear in their annual battle. Both academies go all out with special commemorative uniforms that highlight a special aspect, group, or unit of their branches of the military. And this year, both academies again donned very special uniforms for the Annual Classic. For Navy, the midshipmen wore blue uniforms trimmed in silver and red that paid tribute to Naval aviation and the F/A -18 that was featured in the 1980s movie, “Top Gun”. Across the line of scrimmage, the Army cadets wore uniforms that honored the Army special forces that immediately responded to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on New York City, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Navy won a hard-fought game over Army, 17-13 (Image courtesy of CBS Sports)

But as everyone knows, the event is more than a football game. It is, in this author’s opinion, one of the last remaining true traditions of our nation in which patriotism and military service to our country is both honored and celebrated. The football game is almost symbolic of the readiness of each cadet and midshipman and their preparation to potentially go to battle for the defense of our great nation. Professional football careers are not the objective of the players, but becoming professional military officers and great servants to their nation is the higher and more honorable goal and desire of each player. And for former West Point graduate and now retired Army colonel Jeff O’Neal, the game was not only a return to support his Alma Mater, but was yet another chapter in his family’s service as he and his wife, Michelle had the opportunity to visit their son, Jackson, who is a third year cadet at West Point and who will follow in his dad’s foot steps as an Army officer when he graduates in a little less than 18 months,

The Army & Navy “March On” of cadets and midshipmen during pregame is a traditional highlight of the annual game. Pictured above is the pregame coin toss with surrounding members of the New Jersey State Police (Image special to Resident Press; published with permission of Jeff O’Neal)

I focused on Colonel O’Neal’s military service and his experience at West Point in the first part of this story. If you missed it, you can still find it on the Resident Press website. So, in our second interview, I asked Colonel O’Neal to share with me what his wife’s support has meant to him throughout his military service and their marriage. I asked him in part because I was struck by his comments in our first interview about his possible advancement to the rank of General during his career. To paraphrase, I left the interview with the impression that he had a possible path to advancing to this rank, but his marriage to Michelle compared to the time commitment that would be required at a higher rank was a determining factor for Colonel O’Neal. In short, he did not want to take on more time and responsibility with a higher rank at the expense of his time with Michelle. This, from a man who had a tremendous career and who gave me the impression that his reputation as a good officer and having dedicated his life to taking care of his military personnel who served under him, as well as his family, made the decision to prioritize his wife and family first. That impression of Colonel O’Neal speaks the loudest to me, and on top of every accomplishment he shared with me, that may be the single most significant characteristic of Colonel O’Neal that I admire about him the most. He is a quality man, and my two interview sessions with him have left me with only the highest respect I could have for anyone. He is a tribute to his wife and family, as well as to our nation’s military. And it was my honor to write his story.

Retired Army Colonel Jeffrey O’Neal and his wife, Michelle, pictured here at the 2021 Army / Navy Football Classic (Image special to Resident Press; published with permission from Jeff O’Neal)

But all in all, it was a great weekend at the game for the O’Neals. Colonel O’Neal shared, “Jackson was able to come down (from West Point) on Friday.” Four of the grads who were fellow cadets with O’Neal from the Class of 1990 had dinner with the O’Neals and also had children who are currently cadets at West Point.

The O’Neals attended the Class of 1986 tailgate party. Class, graduates included Mike Pompeo, former US Secretary of State, Mark Esper, Secretary of Defense. Esper attended the tailgate party on Saturday.

The “march on” of Army cadets took place at 12 noon during on-field, pregame ceremonies. Their son, Jackson, had to report to the stadium parking lot no later than 10 a.m. O’Neal went on to say that “The Army theme and uniforms were dedicated to “Task Force Dagger” which was the group of special forces that rode on horse back and confronted the Taliban immediately after 9/11. Those guys were there at the tailgate. The Army uniforms were replicas of desert camouflage. This year’s game was the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, and those guys were our first response, twenty years ago.”

I asked Colonel O’Neal what it felt like to be in the stands as a West Point graduate and to watch his son march on to the field as a West Point junior. He immediately answered, “Very proud. I remember doing it (marching onto the field) and thinking at the time, “Man this is so cool.” It is so cool to go out there and represent the Corps, and you see all the symbols of your country and patriotism. I remember walking out when it was at Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia and we all had to watch Eagles football games, Eagles / Cowboys football games, and thinking how cool it was that we were on that field. And my senior year, we did it at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and it was just a real honor to do it. You think about all of the other cadets throughout history who have done it. I just remember how cool it was and that I would remember it forever. And then I thought how cool it was to see my son do it and see it in his eyes. I told him just before he left the hotel to remember to think how cool this experience is and to look around the stadium and appreciate how cool it is. I told him to take it all in.”

As the conversation went on, I asked him about his wife Michelle and the importance of her to their marriage and his career. “She has been everything. We were pretty good friends when we knew each other living in the County Line area, and I have a picture somewhere were she wrote, “When you get as tall as I am someday we will get married.” We were dating when I went to West Point and we broke up my freshman year. She was the one who got away from me. We started dating again when I was stationed at Fort Campbell (Kentucky). We got married soon thereafter. I had an offer to return to West Point, and Michelle was not a fan of West Point. I declined the offer, saying, “It is not a good time for me to go back to West Point right now.” We got married and moved down to Fort Polk, Louisiana.”

Later on, Michelle agreed to move to Fort Drum, New York where Colonel O’Neal would train with the 10th Mountain Division. “Great guys up there; that is why you go places is because of the guys you will work with. So, we had two little boys while we were there, pregnant with our daughter, Rachel…so if we could make it through that we could make it anywhere.” The divorce rate was high among officers and their wives, and the O’Neals were one of few surviving marriages at that time. “After 9/11, you were either deploying, prepping for deployment, or training someone else for deployment. That’s what my life was after 9/11.”

The O’Neals have a daughter, Rachel, who is a junior at Paris High School. Rachel played on the state champion Paris Lady Eagles volleyball team and is currently playing basketball for the Paris Lady Eagles, as well. Rachel, according to Colonel O’Neal, has considered following in the family foot steps at West Point, but now appears to be leaning at attending the University of Arkansas to major in nursing. “She wants to be an Army nurse. They have a nursing mission at the U of A and she has a chance to compete for a four-year ROTC scholarship that will pay for tuition and fees She could also go off during the summer for four or six weeks to work in an Army hospital in Germany or Hawaii to get some on the job training. For her to do nursing, she would be commissioned as a second lieutenant and then as an Army nurse. They Army will send her off for some sort of specialized, professional training in nursing. She will also have the opportunity to train to be a nurse practitioner and the Army will pay for that, as well.”

So, as our second interview began to wind down, it became increasingly apparent to me how special Colonel O’Neal and his family are and what a value they are to the Paris community. No one can fully appreciate the accomplishments and the service this family has give to our community and to our nation through their service and sacrifice. It was an honor to interview Colonel O’Neal, and having the privilege of sharing his story with our readers is very special to me and something I will forever appreciate. If you ever see Colonel O’Neal, or any other veteran, make sure you show your appreciation by thanking them for their service. And don’t forget to show appreciation for their families, as well. They are the backbones behind the men and women who serve our nation.

Yes, the Army / Navy game is a big deal…..and the men and women of our military are even more special. Thank you all, from the bottoms of our hearts, for your unselfish service to our nation that protect the freedoms who cherish so much.

And in the words of Colonel O’Neal….BEAT NAVY!

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Jim Best
Jim Best is a man of many talents. His storied career in Arkansas education led him to a new passion, and hidden gifts in sports journalism.
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