Dan Plutchak / Stateline News (Beloit, Wis.)
With its porch lights on, a home on Center Street in Orfordville is adorned with American Flags in honor of Cpl. Benjamin Neal, 21, who died April 25 in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. Residents are keeping their porch lights on until Neal's body returns home to be buried.
On April 25, Cpl. Benjamin H. Neal, 21, died in Afghanistan after his unit was attacked with an improvised explosive device.
Neal's passing shocked his hometown of Orfordville, Wis., (pop. 1,321) which had not seen a combat death since World War I, according to the local American Legion chapter.
Soon after Neal's death, two of his cousins launched a Facebook page in his name, urging family members and friends to leave their porch lights on until Neal's remains returned home.
This undated photo provided by the the U.S. Army, shows Cpl. Benjamin Neal, who was killed in Afghanistan on April 25.
Denise Neal, one of the page's organizers, said the idea originated in a conversation between herself, her sister and their aunt. They wanted to collectively express their grief and show their support to Neal's parents, and chose leaving a porch light on after deciding that having candles lit all day was too dangerous.
"My impression of it is when you go out at night and your parents leave the light on until you come home, it’s kind of like that," Neal said.
Neal decided to reach out to family members and friends with the idea through Facebook. Soon the original recipients had invited their friends and so on.
More than 5,200 people have joined "Lighting The Way To Bring Ben Home." A Google map shows the locations of homes across the country where people have pledged to leave a light on. Most of the blue dots representing each house are concentrated near Orfordville, but some are as far away as Alberta, Canada; Landstuhl, Germany; and Bristol, England.
"It's really neat to drive through the area," said Neal, who lives near Orfordville. "When [the lights] are on in the day, you know that’s what it’s about. It's very emotional."
The Facebook page has also filled with condolence messages from friends and strangers.
Jon Martin, an Army soldier, posted that he attended basic training with Neal and was in the same brigade. "I have lots of good memories with him and still regularly tell the story of when he 'liberated' a book from the drill sergeant's office and read it aloud for everyone to enjoy in our down time," Martin wrote. "I added my 'light' to the map in Kandahar, Afghanistan."
Kristin Stephenson wrote, "You and your family are in my heart and prayers during this time of sorrow. I thank you and yours of [sic] your sacrifice. Lights are on in Rockford, IL."
"This is a very nice gesture and way to show support for the family," said John Raughter, communications director for the American Legion.
Raughter likened the porch light campaign to the tradition of displaying a gold star banner, which signifies that a loved one has been killed in war. "These banners, which are only displayed by the families of those who served or are serving, were visible signals to communities and neighborhoods that they should rally around the family to show support," Raughter said. "What seems unique about this is the Facebook involvement. It’s a great use of social media."
The campaign will come to an end Saturday; Neal's remains are scheduled to return to Orfordville at 9 a.m.
Karl Stuvengen, a representative of the local American Legion chapter and a Navy veteran of the Iraq war, said Neal's death has been difficult for Orfordville. "In a community this size, everybody knows everybody," he said.
Stuvengen, 52, who was deployed to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, said he went to school with Neal's parents and his nephew graduated from high school with Neal. There are memories, Stuvengen said, of walking Neal down the street and playing sports with him -- "all the things to remember."
Stuvengen said he was proud of how the town had offered its help.
Neal's sister had been studying in Switzerland when she learned of his death. The local American Legion chapter and state office covered the $2,000 cost of her plane ticket home.
Larry Eckhardt, known as Larry the Flag Man, called from Illinois to volunteer installing flags throughout Orfordville, which he has done for other service member funerals. Volunteers are helping with the flags and town residents are hosting Eckhardt for the overnight trip.
The police department helped to create signs commemorating Neal and posted them around town: "The Orfordville Community is Proud to Honor SPC [sic] Benjamin Neal for his meritorious service and sacrifice."
Rock County sheriff's spokesperson Capt. Jude Maurer said the surrounding communities, which are home to 160,000 people, were deeply affected by the news of Neal's death. "It’s at the size where it’s still small enough, it hit home to everybody here," Maurer said. "I haven’t received anything but sadness."
Neal's parents requested that his convoy pass the American Legion, his family's farm and his grandparents' home when it travels through Orfordville on Saturday.
"We’ve been planning all week," said Maurer. "It’s our way of being able to give this tribute in honor and respect."
A fund has been set up in Neal's name through the local American Legion chapter, and the money will be donated to a charity for children with special needs, a cause important to Neal.
Neal joined the Army in June 2009 and was on his second deployment when he was killed in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. Neal received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Army Commendation Medal, among other honors.
"Ben Neal was a charismatic, fun-loving Paratrooper whom I never saw frown," said Lt. Col. Ced Carrington, the 1st Battalion commander, in a statement released by the Army. "He took great pride in being a team leader and was respected by all of Battle Company and throughout the Battalion. Ben was a true Paratrooper in every sense of the word. His loss will be sorely felt by his fellow Paratroopers and the entire 1st Battalion Family."
Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at msnbc.com. Follow her on Twitter here.
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