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Family recovers after belongings destroyed

Kurt Hildebrand
Nevada Appeal News Service

When U.S. Marine Sgt. Joe Neal went out with his family on July 1, he thought he had everything set.

He had purchased a fifth-wheel trailer so he and his family would have someplace to live after he was out of the service.

“I bought the trailer on Wednesday and pulled it over, got it set up,” he said of the week of the fire. “I got it cleaned up and we moved in on Thursday.”

Neal, 26, said the family was heading back to their old home when they learned that the trailer had caught fire.

Consisting of Neal’s wife, 7-year-old stepson, 5-year-old and 3-year-old daughters, and an eight-week-old son, the family had just moved their belongings into the fifth-wheel parked near Sunrise Pass Road when it caught fire. The fire was reported at 7:20 p.m.

“We were heading to the house we’ve been renting, and stopped at the gas station when a friend of mine pulled up and said the trailer was on fire,”Neal said.

He said he bought the trailer to make the transition from the Marine Corps to civilian life. It was his intention to live in the trailer until he built a place of his own.

“We got everything moved in,” he said, “all my kids’ clothes, movies, the everyday stuff we needed to live out of it.”

The fire leveled the fifth-wheel, leaving what Neal described as nothing but a flatbed trailer.

“Then a friend of ours called us the next day and said, ‘Hey I have a new one that you can use,'” Neal said. “It’s nice. We don’t need anything bigger than this.”

Neal, a sergeant stationed at Pickel Meadows, was an instructor working with the mule program until he got encephalitis, which is forcing him to leave the Marine Corps.

He said he has about two months before his paperwork becomes final. His enlistment would have been up in a year.

“I’ve been up here since November 2006, but when I got sick it caused a bunch of nerve damage,” he said.

Neal said he loved being in the Marine Corps.

“It’s the greatest experience I’ve had in my life besides having my children,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of great people and been a lot of places, along with receiving a steady paycheck.”

Neal grew up in Missouri, but the family moved to south Georgia while he was a teenager.

“We had a house fire then, but my mom and dad had insurance,” he said. “We lived out of a hotel, and it was just a big adventure. But when you have four kids of your own, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

While he was a teenager, Neal won a singer-songwriter competition in Nashville.

“When I got back down to Georgia, the recruiter pulled into the driveway and I chose the Marine Corps,” he said. “I’ve been writing more over the last eight or nine years.”

Because of the nerve damage from the encephalitis, he gets chronic migraines, so he and his wife decided he should pursue a music career.

He said he found a lot of support for the family in Carson Valley after the fire.

“I would have never thought in a million years that many people would come to help us.

“The clothing and other things have been such a blessing,” he said. “I’m grateful to all the people who came forward with all the donations for the kids. I’d dumped every dime I had into the trailer that burned.”

Volunteer and career firefighters donated $3,000 from their Burn Fund to help the family get back on their feet.

“Over the course of eight years it doesn’t seem to be that much, but when you try to replace it, you just don’t realize how much has gone out,” he said.

East Fork Fire Capt. Terry Taylor said the cause of the fire was accidental.