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Centreville Grad O'Neill with Marines in Iraq

Sean O'Neill, 20, is a lance corporal in the Marine Reserves, but he's on active duty now. He and his unit, the 4th LAR, Company D, left last Monday, April 7, for Iraq.

"April 5, 2002 was his graduation from boot camp," said his mother. "Just one year later, he would be going to war."

His parents are Dennis and Marisu O'Neill of Centreville's Braddock Ridge community; dad is a Valor Award-winning Fairfax County police officer — a lieutenant in the traffic division — and mom is a personnel analyst for Arlington County government.

His brother Patrick, 23, a GMU senior, is also a Marine lance corporal, but in the inactive reserves. "Sean signed up for the Marines while he was in high school," said his mother. "He wanted to show his brother he could do it, too."

Sean attended St. Timothy School and was a 2001 Centreville High grad. While there, he played guard for the JV and varsity basketball teams and in 2001 was named an outfielder on the All Northern Region baseball team.

He began Marine boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., in January 2002, graduating three months later. He then went to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for infantry training and to learn his specialty — driving light armored vehicles (LAVs).

In September, Sean returned home and attended classes at NOVA's Manassas campus, studying information systems toward a career in network administration. But he still had monthly drills and, at Christmas, he worked in the Marines' Toys for Tots program.

He began his second semester in January but, with world tensions worsening, he had a feeling he'd get called up. He was activated in early March. "His sergeant called at night," said Marisu O'Neill. "I was anticipating it, but I was still in shock. I was praying that that call wouldn't come."

Sean went to Quantico for a couple weeks' training and, on March 15, left for Camp Lejeune, N.C. where he spent two weeks before deploying.

"Between the time he was at Quantico and then at Lejeune, war had been declared," said O'Neill. "He was anxious to get going because the other companies were there already and he knew a lot of the guys there that he'd trained with at Pendleton."

The two weeks at Lejeune helped prepare his family a bit for his departure but, said his mother, "It still doesn't help that he's over there. He turned 20 on March 16, but we celebrated it early, March 5, because he was in Lejeune on his birthday." Sean's parents, girlfriend Laura Henry, Patrick and his girlfriend Terri Myers shared a cake decorated with the Marine eagle, globe and anchor, and reading "Happy Birthday to our Marine."

Shortly before deploying, Sean and the others in his company drove their LAVs in a convoy to Cherry Point (an hour from Lejeune). "He said that people were out all along their route, waving flags and cheering for them," said O'Neill. "That made him feel really good because he had heard so much about the protests."

They then returned to Lejeune to hear President Bush address the Marines and their families, and that, too, gave Sean a boost. "He was very excited," said O'Neill. "After the speech, they got very energized." A few days later, he headed to war.

"On [April 7], when he was on the tarmac at Cherry Point [preparing to fly out], he called me to say good-bye," said his mother. "He talked to his dad and then to me. I told him to stay focused and sharp, and he said, 'Yeah, I know, Mom — and to pray.'"

Now, the O'Neills write to him and send him socks and moistened wipes. Neighbors have been supportive, Sean's included on St. Timothy's prayer chain and Centreville High math teacher Marylou Rothman took around a card to his former teachers there to be signed and sent to him.

Still, his mother calls the whole thing "very surreal. I go through the motions of the day, but he's just constantly on my mind. But we pray a lot, and we've seen an outpouring of support from a lot of people and it really helps our morale."

And fellow Centreville High 2001 grad Ryan Burke, also a Marine, went all through training with Sean and is in the same outfit with him overseas. Said O'Neill: "It made me feel better knowing he has someone over there with him."

As for Sean, she said he's committed to the cause. "He was really affected by 9/11," said O'Neill. "I think he realized, all of a sudden, that what the country stood for was being attacked. His father and grandfather told him, 'Go there, come back and then tell us your stories.' We're all so proud of him."