by Angus MacCaull

What do you do when a soldier dies? There are as many ways to pay respects as there are people to remember the fallen. When Sgt. James MacNeil of Glace Bay was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, thousands showed up to welcome the arrival of his body back to his native soil. There were ceremonies. There was a procession along the “Highway of Heroes”. His father got a tattoo of his portrait. His friends and family started a memorial mixed baseball event. Ocean View Education Centre dedicated a soccer field in his name and also began a memorial basketball tournament. MacNeil was very outgoing and loved sports. The basketball tournament recently completed its fifth year.

The 5th Annual Sgt. James MacNeil Memorial Tournament took place over eight days this January. It is now the largest junior high school tournament in the province.  Twenty-three junior high school teams in five divisions played a total of forty-two games. Seventy-five volunteers and thirty-three businesses supported approximately four hundred players and coaches from Glace Bay, Sydney, Sydney River, North Sydney, Sydney Mines, Louisburg, Neil’s Harbor, Bras d’Or, Baddeck, New Waterford, Eskasoni, and Westmount. It was a week full of youth development and communities coming together. At the closing ceremony, in addition to MVPs, Sportsmanship and Hustle Awards, two five hundred dollar bursaries were provided to two Glace Bay High School basketball graduates. And throughout the tournament, recyclable bottles were collected in support of the school’s Adopt-A-Family program.

Tracey LaTulippe has been organizing the tournament since it started. When I asked her about what stood out from what was a very busy week, she mentioned the respect shown by participants, the increased awareness of the military among the youth, the former players who have returned to volunteer their time, the leadership and encouragement displayed by the coaches, the support shown by the community, the gratitude from the MacNeil family, and without a doubt, the smiles on the kids’ faces.

MacNeil is certainly not the only solider who gave his life in Afghanistan. The Canadian military spent over twelve years there with one hundred and fifty-eight deaths among personnel. And even as the tournament in Glace Bay was underway this year, Canadian soldiers were on the ground fighting in Iraq. We live in a complicated, interconnected world. It’s also, for us here in Canada, a relatively free and open one. MacNeil’s friends and family have put a lot of care into preserving his memory both to honour him and so that his name can be a positive reminder of the ideals that all Canadian soldiers fight for.