Semper Fi

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story originally ran in the November 2007 issue of Inside Columbia.

HADITHA, IRAQ, Sept. 26, 2006:
Echo Company is on night patrol. House-to-house searches are the order of the evening to ferret out weapons, improvised explosive devices and contraband. These Marines have been in country for two weeks.

A shot rings out. A man is down.

It looks bad.

COLUMBIA, MO, Sept. 27, 2006:
The ringing phone cuts through the slumber of Carl and Connie McClellan. Son John hasn’t had a chance to call since he deployed to Iraq. Finally, some news?

But the voice on the other end of the line is not John’s. Connie McClellan’s heart is in her throat as the messenger intones:

“I regret to inform you …”

The McClellans’ only son had just spent the past five hours on an operating table in a military hospital as doctors worked desperately to save his life. A sniper’s bullet had found its way under Marine Lance Cpl. John McClellan’s helmet on the streets of Haditha. The deadly projectile tore through his brain and out the back of his neck.

Doctors pegged his chances of survival at 1 percent. If he were lucky enough to live, they said, he would be a vegetable.

But John McClellan wasn’t nicknamed “Lucky” for nothing. A little more than a year later, this young veteran is home in Columbia, walking, talking and living much like any other 21-year-old: no vegetating allowed.

“God is definitely looking out for me,” he says.

The Few. The Proud.
Connie McClellan had no idea what was in store when the phone rang in April 2003.

“The caller ID said ‘U.S. Government’ and since we’d just filed our taxes, I thought it was the IRS,” she recalls. “But it was a Marine recruiter asking for John.”

When her son arrived home from Hickman High School that day, Connie learned of John’s plan to join the Marines after graduation in 2004.

“We had just invaded Iraq … I asked him if this was really what he wanted to do.”

John, whose father, Carl, was a Vietnam War veteran, replied: “I don’t mind going and fighting for my country.”

Connie smiles at the memory. “Well, that was one of those ‘mother’s proudest moments,’ let me tell you.”

McClellan shipped out the Monday after he graduated in 2004. Assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, he was based in Kaneahoe Bay, Hawaii. A year later, the 2/3 arrived in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, the reputed stronghold of Osama bin Laden. The rugged countryside was a surprise for McClellan.

“When I first thought of Afghanistan, I thought flat, sand, desert,” he says. “But when I got there I saw it was really mountainous and green.”

McClellan’s E Company operated out of Camp Blessing, the most remote outpost on the eastern edge of Afghanistan. A machine-gunner, he spent his days perched atop a Humvee as Marines patrolled the area, searching for enemy operatives and their weapons caches.

“It goes from one extreme to the other, just like that,” he says, snapping his fingers. “You’re driving down the road and suddenly somebody’s shooting at you.”

Caught in a firefight in October 2005, McClellan was hit in his right wrist by a ricocheting bullet fragment. He returned fire with his MK19 grenade launcher before he noticed the wound.

“It was just a flesh wound,” he says.

Six days later, McClellan’s convoy was attacked again when the Marines stopped to inspect a suspected roadside bomb. As he returned fire with an M240 from his turret post, he felt pressure on his arm and heard a tink on the turret shield. Yelling “I got hit,” he ducked down and another Marine took his position in the turret. McClellan grabbed his M16, jumped out of the Humvee and kept on shooting.

Back at the base, doctors determined McClellan had again dodged a bullet, if only figuratively. The bullet had entered and exited his right upper arm with little damage. The corpsman who treated him pronounced him “extremely lucky.”

McClellan collected two Purple Hearts for his week’s adventures. He was back in the turret within two weeks, answering to such nicknames as “Bullet Sponge” and “Lucky.” He even joked with a Stars and Stripes reporter about another nickname he hoped he didn’t earn: “Third Time’s A Charm.”

Assignment: Iraq
The 2/3 served seven months in Afghanistan and then returned to Kaneahoe Bay for more training.

“We were always well-prepared for the situation,” McClellan says. “They trained us harder than anything we ever faced in combat.”

Seven months later, the group had its new assignment: Haditha, Iraq, a violent city on the banks of the Euphrates River, epicenter of a fierce uprising against American forces.

This wouldn’t be like Afghanistan. The desert city 140 miles northwest of Baghdad was a stronghold of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, serving as a riverside way station for smuggling fighters, weapons and ammunition. Battle tactics would be urban warfare, bullets coming from 50 yards away instead of 600.

McClellan arrived there on Sept. 11, 2006.

“We were working all the time, patrolling every day,” he says.

McClellan quickly discovered another difference between his postings in Afghanistan and Iraq: In Haditha, there was much less interaction with the people. Where ubiquitous Afghani children had tagged along after the Americans begging for cookies, Iraqis were more reserved, fearful of being seen with the soldiers.

“The bad guys have no sympathy for the people at all,” McClellan says.

Crossing the street one night, McClellan got more Iraqi interaction than he wanted when a sniper shot him in the head. As corpsmen rushed to his aid, his teammates turned a volley on the shooter and took him out.

McClellan had met up with an enemy bullet yet a third time, but there was nothing charming about this encounter. He was in for the fight of his life.

The Long Way Home
Medics quickly transferred McClellan to Balad Air Base about 100 miles east, where his doctor made the call to his family in Columbia.

“It seemed like an eternity between ‘regret to inform you’ and ‘your son has been injured,’ ” says his mother, Connie. “When I heard that, I thought ‘Hallelujah, he’s not dead.’ ”

Connie McClellan vowed to do everything she could to keep her son alive. With John half a world away, the only thing she knew she could do was pray. She sent out an email before dawn to everyone in her address book, asking for prayer. She showed up on her church’s doorstep at 7 a.m. asking for prayer. By that night, the news had spread throughout Columbia and hundreds gathered on her front lawn for a candlelight prayer vigil.

“The outpouring from the community has been amazing,” she says. “You could just feel the supernatural energy that night. I had the most overwhelming assurance that he was going to be OK. It was going to be the miracle of miracles, the testimony of testimonies. God was going to take care of him.”

The doctor’s second call began with a much happier greeting for the McClellans: “I’ve got some really good news for you.”

Incredibly, John’s medical prognosis had made a 180-degree turnaround in 24 hours. He was responding; his tests looked good. He would be transferred to the military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany.

By Friday he was back on American soil, at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He would spend 26 days there before moving on to a rehabilitation center at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla. But despite the optimistic turn of events that week, the injured Marine had a lot of work to do.

Carl, Connie and John’s sister, Jane, arrived in Maryland Saturday morning. The Bethesda doctors told them the sniper’s bullet had entered above John’s left ear, missing the carotid artery by a distance the thickness of two sheets of paper. A facial nerve was severed, he was deaf and he might be blind. Walking, talking, swallowing and most cognitive functions were iffy possibilities at best.

“I’ll never forget that walk [down the hall to his hospital room]. It was terrifying,” Connie says. “We didn’t know what to expect. But he looked amazing — except for all the tubes coming out of his body.”

John didn’t recognize his family that day; they seemed familiar, but he didn’t know who they were. He still has no memory of the shooting or the hospital stays in Balad and Landstuhl.

The quest for normalcy began. By Sunday, John knew his family. When Carl joked, “Well, son, I guess that hard head of yours is finally working to your advantage,” John pointed to his mother. Hard-headedness is hereditary in this clan.

McClellan collected his third Purple Heart at Bethesda from Gen. Michael Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps. The country’s top Marine said McClellan was only the second person he knew to receive three Purple Hearts; the other recipient had earned his in Vietnam.

Hagee, who visited twice, wasn’t the only VIP to come calling. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dropped in, as did the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, and a parade of officials’ wives.

Just 29 days after the shooting, McClellan was on the move again, to Tampa for rehab work. Weeks of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy followed. His face sagged badly on the left and a gold weight had to be inserted into his eyelid so it could close. He was deaf in his left ear, but his vision was perfect, he could talk (albeit with a Marlon Brando “Godfather” rasp), and he could swallow — a big step since he had lost 50 pounds in the month since the shooting. Eventually, his cousins coaxed him into a wheelchair. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers honored him at an NFL game where Coach Jon Gruden literally gave McClellan the shirt off his back.

But good days were rare and frustration was often the order of the day. Impatient to begin walking, McClellan even tried to bargain with his therapists, offering to give away one of his Purple Hearts to anyone who could get him to walk again.

Connie saw no joy in her son in Tampa, and it wasn’t just because one side of his face couldn’t smile. He was frustrated and he wanted to go home.

Happy Thanksgiving
By November, McClellan’s doctors were happy to oblige. Hopes for a Christmas homecoming turned to elation at the prospect of Thanksgiving in Columbia. McClellan was walking with a cane when he came home Nov. 21, welcomed by a boisterous crowd at Columbia Regional Airport. Within two weeks he had thrown away the cane.

Months of therapy awaited him at Rusk Rehabilitation Center. Connie kept track of each miracle as he surmounted each obstacle. The list has grown quite long.

“This has all been a wonderful witness to God’s power,” she says.

The accolades continue to roll in for what Connie calls “my miracle Marine.” The Salute to Veterans organization honored him at the Memorial Day weekend celebration in May 2007. In January 2007, the state House of Representatives presented McClellan with the Outstanding Missourian Award. Thunderous applause accompanied him as he walked unaided to the podium. They say he broke the record for longest standing ovation in the chamber.

The heady day included a meeting with then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve who was activated after Sept. 11 to serve as a security officer overseas. The ice-breaker introduction included a mention that Blunt was a Navy man.

“Yeah,” the young Marine quipped. “Nobody’s perfect.”

Time To Heal
Veterans Day 2007 found McClellan still healing and making plans for his future. His facial paralysis is gone; he has a full smile and his dimple is back. A newly implanted BAHA hearing device — a bone-anchored hearing aid — could restore him to full hearing.

There are still hurdles to jump just one year after the attack, though. McClellan suffers from short-term memory loss, which makes college classes impossible for the time-being. His doctors estimate that it should abate in another year. His balance is not yet perfect and he has not been cleared to start driving again. Still on the payroll as an active-duty Marine, he awaits an early medical discharge from the service.

He moved out of his parents’ home last spring to share a house with two friends and his golden retriever puppy, Lucky. McClellan plans to become a personal trainer in civilian life after completing a military certification program in Indiana.

His Marine experience wasn’t exactly what he expected, he concedes.

“I didn’t plan on getting shot when I joined,” he says. “And certainly not three times!”

If he had it to do over, would he change anything?

“I would have chosen a different job, maybe — like working in the kitchen,” he says with a smile. “But no, I wanted a hard-core job. I’ve made some good friends in the Marines and we had some good times. This whole getting-shot-in-the-head thing ruined it.

“I joined up because I wasn’t ready for college,” he adds. “I figured it would be a good experience and give me time to think about my career plans. Now here I am at the same crossroads again.”

McClellan’s journey back to the crossroads was in a convoy of hope, faith and persistence. Here he has found an answer for why he was spared:

“God wants me to do something important with the rest of my life.”

2013 UPDATE:
John McClellan will graduate from the University of Missouri in December with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and fitness. Married in 2011, he and his wife Chrissa, a physician specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, welcomed a son, Kane, in 2012. They are expecting another child in February.

Connie McClellan has written a book, My Miracle Marine, which chronicles her son John’s recovery. Published in 2008 by Divine Word Publishing, the book is available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.