Vietnam veteran Rafael Aragon receives a signed copy Thursday of a book by retired Marine Clebe McClary outlining his combat injuries. CNJ staff photo: Darrell Todd Maurina.
By Darrell Todd Maurina
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Some people know pain and suffering. As a Marine who lost an eye and arm while leading his men in combat during the Vietnam War, Clebe McClary said he has more cause than many others to speak of his own pain.
“I didn’t get drafted, I didn’t have to join the Marine Corps. I was a college coach who saw the American flag being burned and went down to sign up,” McClary told an audience assembled Wednesday for the National Prayer Luncheon at Cannon.
McClary told his audience that, as a Marine lieutenant, he led a platoon of 13 men into a small tea plantation when the platoon was attacked and nearly overrun.
As grenades began flying, one of his men jumped on a grenade, saving McClary’s life and that of two other Marines and earning a posthumous Medal of Honor for his sacrifice. McClary and his remaining men were evacuated by helicopter just minutes before the arrival of a large body of Communist soldiers, but McClary spent the next two years undergoing more than 30 major surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy.
“As I look around, most of you have been blessed — you have two eyes, two arms, two legs,” McClary said. “Life is tough. You’re either going to get better or you’re going to get bitter.”
McClary said when facing suffering, Christians need to remember Romans 5:3-5: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”
McClary said passages like that should have brought him comfort, but as he lay in his hospital bed and later as he returned to his wife, he realized his faith was more custom and tradition from his upbringing than a personal relationship with God.
“So many people told me I was a Christian that I thought I was,” McClary said. “We had a whole lot in our heads but a big vacuum in our hearts.”
McClary said the Marines reinforced what he’d long believed about the importance of integrity, honor, respect and personal discipline, but a personal relationship with Christ was the only thing able to carry him through the loss of the physical abilities of which he had once been proud. After his injuries, McClary said he dedicated himself to using his personal testimony to reach people who might otherwise be hardened against Christian commitment.
As he stood in line to greet McClary after his speech, Deacon Rafael Aragon of Cannon’s Roman Catholic chapel said he remembered his own days fighting in Vietnam and greatly appreciated McClary’s speech.
“Prayer life is very important for our lives as we prepare for deployments,” Aragon said. “It inspires our troops that we have to be properly prepared because really we don’t know what will happen.”
Lt. Col. Tom Gould, operations officer for the 524th Fighter Squadron, said he first heard McClary in 1990 and welcomed the chance to hear him again at Cannon.
“Lt. McClary’s heroism in combat and his life’s accomplishments alone are reason enough to come hear him speak, but it is his gift to empower us that leads me to want to hear him again and again,” Gould said. “In the world we live in, and the pace we live our lives, it is easy to lose focus of what’s truly important. Lt. McClary reminded us, in his own unique way, of those priorities that will being us the greatest joys in our personal and professional lives and more importantly in our relationship with God.”
McClary put it more bluntly in explaining why he tries to reach military personnel with a Christian witness.
“You don’t have any way to know how much time you have when you’re deployed, and you need to get right with God first,” McClary said.