An Oklahoma City Air Force veteran is receiving special recognition ahead of Veterans Day, for both his service to the country and to a group of students. Col. Phil Neely (Ret.) is now retiring from the Southeast High School JROTC program.
Neely has spent the past 12 years molding hundreds of high school students into young leaders. His time at Southwest is coming to a close, but students say his legacy will remain.
Honoring living veterans as well as those who are no longer with us is an annual tradition at Southeast High School, with alumni coming from far and wide to show their stripes. Some of the younger men and women in uniform were first inspired by Neely.
“Airplanes are easy to fly,” Neely says. “These kids aren’t. It’s like switching gears. How does this one fly? Or in this case, how does this one learn?”
Today's JROTC students are taking flight, though. Neely inspired some cadets even before high school, like freshman Lucero Torres, whose big sister Yadira is now in ROTC at OU.
Yadira says, “I joined the program my sophomore year, and he actually made a bet with me. He said, ‘I bet you won’t make it the entire year on the drill team,’ and I won that bet.”
Neely calls Yadira his best student. Lucero just appreciates her instructor for treating her like an individual, despite her similar aspirations.
She says, “People were just going to see me as (Yadira), but he told me he’s going to see me as me, instead of her.”
The sisters think of the colonel as an adopted grandfather, and stories like theirs have kept him going for more than a decade. Now, though, he says it is time to shift his focus to his own family.
“I need to try to enjoy my wife and then what’s left of my kids,” he says. “They’re all in college or graduating, and I can’t play catch up anymore.”
But his students promise, they will take the lead from here.
Yadira says, “There’s still going to be people that remember Col. Neely, what he’s done for the program, what he’s done for us in general, and that’s just going to go on.”