RAMADI, Iraq – Almost a decade has past since the death of U.S. Marine Maj. Megan M. McClung but her legacy continues to grow with every year since her passing in 2006.
The phone call came on an average Wednesday to the Public Affairs Office at Camp Fallujah, Iraq. The news was devastating to our close-knit team as we were nearing the end of a yearlong deployment with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.
McClung was the first female Marine officer to be killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as the first female graduate of the United States Naval Academy to be killed in action since the school was founded in 1845.
McClung, who was 34 at the time of her death, was serving as a media relations officer when a roadside bomb killed her instantly in Ramadi, Iraq, Dec. 6, 2006. She and two other service members assigned the Army’s Brigade Combat Team, Capt. Travis Patriquin and Spec. Vincent Pomante, III, were also killed. The convoy McClung had been riding in was escorting Newsweek journalists when an improvised explosive device struck their vehicle. The Newsweek journalists were in another vehicle and escaped without injury. McClung had been escorting retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and a Fox News Channel camera crew earlier in the day and were devastated when they learned the news of the attack.
“As I get older, her death resonates more than I thought it would after so many years. We are all moving on with our lives. I am married, with children, successful in my work and life and I know she would be proud, but the thought that she won’t have these things is heartbreaking. Her memory is suspended in time,” reflected Staff Sgt. Lynn Kinney, who served with McClung and was a corporal at the time of the deployment.
Kinney also added that it’s been hard to watch events unfolding in Ramadi this year. “The recent news of the taking of Ramadi by ISIL has been hard to process. It makes me sad and angry to have lost so many lives, not just Megan, but the amazing potential of so many Marines whose lives were cut short.”
McClung had come from a family of military service and was commissioned as a Marine officer in 1995 and served nearly 10 years on active duty at various stateside locations. She remained in the Marine Corps reserves and was hired by Kellogg, Brown and Root, an American engineering and construction company, and served in Baghdad, Iraq as a private contractor in 2005.
When she returned to the U.S. in 2005, she was mobilized to active duty with the Marines, where she would deploy back to Iraq, but not return to home.
Retired Master Sgt. Willie Ellerbrock, who worked closely with McClung during their deployment, expressed how he honors her legacy. “I truly believe the best way to honor our fallen is to remember them and defend these liberties with all of our might and ability, as they did for us. Love deeply and live greatly – for them and yourselves.”
Former colleague and classmate from their time at the Defense Information School, Col. Riccoh Player wrote in an email “Megan served with the mindset of running to the sound of battle, not away from it. She accepted every mission, every billet, every challenge with vigor, creative abandon and a find-a-way-to-make-a-way ethos.”
Player, the I MEF deputy PAO during the 2006 deployment, had known McClung for many years and was ‘crushed’ upon learning the news of her death that day from the director of public affairs for I MEF, Lt.
Col. Bryan Salas.
Salas, who retired as a colonel a few years ago, now works as the Deputy Chief of Staff for the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the Department of Homeland Security.
Salas had also known and worked with McClung at various times during their careers and had ‘recruited’ her to deploy with him and the I MEF (Forward) team as the Media Relations Officer in Anbar Province. Little did he know, or could have imagined, that a member of his team would fall victim to the violence that was mounting in the region.
“We all missed her very much. She was a great professional colleague, and friend. She was a great running partner. She led us with great encouragement in running and fitness. Megan was an unforgettable personality and I miss her tremendously,” Salas wrote in an email for this article.
As the first female Marine officer to be killed in Iraq, many senior officials and media took notice because this crossed into new territory for women who were now sharing the same burden and risk as male Marines. Those serving on Female Engagement Teams, mounted patrols outside the wire and other various missions were no less at risk than their male counterparts.
When asked if this changed the way people should feel about women serving in a combat zone, the senior enlisted leader for I MEF Public Affairs Officer explained his position. “No…but serving with Megan and women like her in Iraq, confirmed what I had already experienced in non-combat-related deployments and exercises. Namely, that honor, courage and commitment are not gender-specific attributes,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. John Cordero.
Of all the hundreds of service members who had been killed during that year alone, almost everyone there at the time worked with someone or knew someone personally who had been killed or severely injured. According to globalsecurity.org, 119 service members lost their lives in the month of December 2006, which was the height of the violence centered in the Sunni Triangle.
Although her death came as a surprise to all who knew her, the other two who lost their lives where serving vital roles for then U.S. Army Col. Sean McFarland’s staff of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, or “Ready First” based at Camp Ramadi.
Patriquin, a young Special Forces officer, had already won a Bronze Star in Afghanistan before being transferred to Iraq. Patriquin set out to establish a crucial network with tribal leaders built on mutual trust and respect.
In 2006, Patriquin is largely credited with enabling the Sunni Awakening in early August where the influential sheiks of Anbar Province revolted against Al Qaeda insurgents. This movement spread through Anbar and eventually across the country – a turning point that led to dramatically lower levels of violence starting in mid-2007.
Before his tragic death from an IED explosion, Patriquin was so beloved by Iraqis that they adopted him into their tribes and loved him as a brother. A book was written about him by author William Doyle called A Soldier’s Dream. It’s a tribute to a man who loved Iraq and a devoted soldier who made a crucial impact on the Iraq War.
The gunner in the vehicle, Pomante, 22, from Westerville, Ohio, was responsible for shepherding visitors to and from the flight line and planning the routes to important meetings at the Ramadi government center.
Although McClung, Patriquin and Pomante came from different backgrounds, they died side-by-side doing what they loved and defending the ideals of our nation. The perpetrators of the attack were never caught or brought to justice. Their deaths rippled across so many circles of families, friends and colleagues that are still trying to accept the tragedy.
Fellow female Marine officer and public affairs colleague, Jill Leyden, was a 2nd lieutenant when she served with McClung in Iraq. “It’s difficult to describe how I changed. The best I can say is that there is a level of seriousness that I have not been able to shake off despite my best efforts.”
McClung’s bright red hair and larger-than-life personality left a mark on so many that knew her. As an avid runner and triathlete, she was well known throughout the Marines’ triathlon community. As a triathlete, she competed in seven Ironman distance triathlons. Her accomplishments include winning the First Military Female award in Kona, Hawaii, in 2000
and placing second the next year.
McClung organized the first Marine Corps Marathon (Forward) in Iraq to coincide with the 2006 Marine Corps Marathon in October and served as the race director just weeks before her death. Despite running with an injury, she placed second among the female runners.
McClung’s older brother, Michael, says that her death changed her family in ways they never expected. “The war impacted my life. It was the reason Megan was overseas and the direct cause she would not return. It changed the dynamic of my family, of my parents, and of how the rest of my life would be. Now, years later, I understand that grief changes shape, but never goes away.”
Childhood friends, classmates from the Naval Academy, members of the media and Marines who knew her reached out to the McClungs in several ways when news of her death was made known. The McClung family makes it a point to attend the Marine Corps Marathon in Wash., D.C. every year to award the “Penguin Award.”
McClung encouraged everyone to put forth his or her best effort and established the Penguin Award providing acknowledgement to the final runner that completed the 26.2 miles. In continuing the tradition at the MCM and in McClung’s memory, the Paul the Penguin Award is presented to the final official MCM finisher each year.
The Penguin Award, an honor given to the final finisher of the marathon for their efforts for not quitting no matter what their time would be.
The Penguin Award first made its unofficial appearance at the Marine Corps Marathon Forward in Iraq in 2006, a race she organized while deployed. She got the idea for the award from a blogger who she followed named John Bingham, who wrote that he loved to run but would never win a race because he was slow, so he would call himself “The Penguin,” according to a story posted to marines.mil.
“He really inspired [Meg],” said Re McClung, Megan’s mother. “So she asked for a penguin that she could give to the last official finisher.” John Bingham had the same life metaphor as Megan McClung. “It’s not important how fast you run it, it’s that you get to the goal, and you cross the finish line,” the article explained.
The director of MCM, Rick Nealis, contacted the McClung family in 2007 and asked if they would come to the marathon and present a penguin to the last official runner.
The McClung family has been presenting the Penguin Award for the last eight years and will continue to do so as a way to honor Megan’s memory. “As long as the McClung family is around and there are any of us to do it, we will be here to give the penguin to that last runner,” Re explained.
There have been several other memorials and honors paid to McClung since 2006. A Marine Corps-wide annual leadership award in her name seeks to highlight achievements of an outstanding leader, role model and mentor. The Sea Service Leadership Association sponsors the yearly award and it’s presented at the annual Joint Women’s Leadership Symposium in June.
In Iraq, U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno was responsible for building a state of the art broadcast studio in 2007, which allowed live interviews as well as numerous press events. He dedicated the studio to honor McClung’s tireless efforts while working in the public affairs field.
Other notable recognition included when retired Marine Lt. Gen. Carol Mutter honored McClung for her sacrifice during a speech at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 4, 2008.
In 2008, the first Major Megan M. McClung Memorial Scholarship was awarded to a college student by her parents, Drs. Re and Michael McClung and the Women Marines Association.
The Defense Information School began presenting the Maj. Megan McClung Leadership Award in 2011 to one graduating member of each Public Affairs Qualification Course. The Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association also created the Megan McClung Sport Photography annual merit award that recognizes excellence by combat correspondents and combat camera specialists.
More than 700 people attended her memorial service on a cold D.C. morning and Maj. Megan McClung was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Section 60 with full military honors on Dec. 19, 2006.
McClung, who was unmarried at the time of her death, held a Bachelor of Science degree in General Science from the U.S. Naval Academy and had just completed her Masters in Criminal Justice from Boston University. Her awards include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and National Defense Service Medal.
One of her most lasting legacies was a phrase she coined while training troops and senior officials on how to conduct media interviews. Her headstone is engraved with her mantra, fitting perhaps for someone whose life was short but lived so well: “Be Bold. Be Brief. Be Gone.”
By Lt. Amy Forsythe
*Amy Forsythe was an award-winning U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondent from 1993 to 2010 and served four combat tours. She earned a commission in the U.S. Navy and serves as a reserve public affairs officer. She currently works as a civilian for Defense Media Activity as the Bureau Chief in Guam for American Forces Network-Pacific.