General Richard “Butch” Neal, a Humble Powerhouse, Dies at 79

In Memoriam

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Four-Star Marine Corps General, author and community volunteer Richard "Butch" Neal died June 17, just three days shy of his 80th birthday.

People who saw the wiry guy in shorts and a Boston Marathon windbreaker jogging around Capitol Hill may not have realized the distinguished history that their neighbor carried with him.

But Richard I. Neal, who died on June 17, just three days shy of his 80th birthday, was a humble powerhouse, a four-star US Marine Corps General with a chestful of medals who nonetheless preferred to be called “Butch.”

His final assignment before retiring in 1998 was as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, which brought him and his wife, Kathy, here to the Hill, where they settled in 1996.

A native of Hull, Massachusetts, Butch was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1965 after receiving his B.S. in history and education from Northeastern University. He later earned an M.A. in education from Tulane University. In 1967, he married Kathleen McCann, a pretty young nurse whom he’d had his eye on ever since she and her family started spending their summer vacations in Hull. They would go on to have three children—Andrew, Amy Elizabeth, and Erin—and three times that many homes, as they moved around the country to be near Butch’s latest duty station.

During his more than three decades in the military, he commanded at every level, battalion, and division, holding leadership positions both in the Marine Corps and in Joint Commands. Butch served two tours of duty in Vietnam, the second as an infantry battalion adviser to the Vietnamese Marines.

During Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War, he served under General Schwarzkopf as Deputy Director of Operations, appearing daily at national press briefings and becoming the de facto voice for the military. During the early 1990s, he was advanced to major general and lieutenant general, and was promoted to four-star general in 1996.

General Butch Neal at 2017 BookFest. Courtesy: K. Lyon

In 2017, Butch wrote a book chronicling his military experiences. “What Now, Lieutenant?: Leadership Forged from Events in Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Beyond” became my introduction to him when I was asked to include his book in my Hill Rag column.

He didn’t have an author photo to accompany my review, so my husband, Ed McManus, agreed to go to Butch’s house and take one. The three of us soon became friends. Ed, also a Vietnam veteran, loved talking “military” over beers with Butch, while I was always eager to hear what latest book this voracious reader had to recommend.

The General was always in great demand, traveling around the country for dedications and speeches, and serving on a number of boards, but he always found time in early May to volunteer for the Literary Hill BookFest. It was especially impressive to see the young volunteers from the Marine Corps Barracks snap to when they realized who was asking them to set up tables, and he made sure to shake each young Marine’s hand and thank them for their service.

More recently, Butch stuck closer to home when Kathy, his wife of 54 years, became increasingly ill. He frankly admitted how hard it was for him to be thrust into the unfamiliar role of caretaker and he could often be seen at Eastern Market picking up take-out meals when, as he said, it was his “night to cook.” But his love for Kathy—and his wry acknowledgment that he was now making up for all the care she’d provided for him and their children over the years—helped keep him going.

General Butch Neal died unexpectedly of complications from multiple strokes, leaving behind his wife, three children, seven grandchildren—and many heartbroken friends and colleagues here on the Hill and all over the world.