They called him 'The Kid'

Friday, May 29, 2009

My cell phone rang and I spoke with the caller who was trying to reach someone else named Clint during the Memorial Day weekend.

It turned out to be Sarah Dean, grandmother of Daniel B. McClenney, the U.S. Marine who was killed by enemy gunfire from two ambush positions on June 24, 2004 in the Konar Province of Afghanistan.

McClenney was from Flat Creek in Bedford County where his grandmother lives. She was trying to reach her son, Clint, from a previous marriage. Apparently, she has my number listed in her address book just by my first name.

A Bronze Star was posthumously awarded to Pfc. McClenney during a ceremony in April 2005 at the Bedford County Courthouse. Mrs. Dean and I met because of the ceremony.

Just as we should always treat each other as if it was Christmas or Easter, it's altogether fitting that we remember people like McClenney at times other than Memorial Day.

McClenney's fire team was looking for enemy militia and got caught in the crossfire.

"The enemy would have dealt a detrimental blow [to a coalition base] ... had Pfc. McClenney's fire team not reacted in a quick and decisive manner," Gordon R. England, secretary of the Navy, who served as the first deputy secretary of Homeland Security, wrote of the day McClenney died.

"McClenney continued to engage the enemy despite being wounded on the initial burst of enemy fire. After his team leader was killed, he took over radio communications and gave constant situation reports to the firebase and quick reaction force for 30 minutes.

"McClenney aggressively exchanged fire with the enemy while simultaneously requesting medical evacuation for his entire team," England said. "With a severe wound to his abdomen and a broken arm ... McClenney displayed an indomitable fighting spirit as he fought hand-to-hand, until he was mortally wounded."

Sarah Dean has memorized that chain of events if not those words.

PVC pipe has been placed next to McClenney's head stone in his small community's cemetery, Sarah Dean told me. It's a place where the staff of an American flag may be placed for Decoration Day and other important dates on our American calendars.

To remember her grandson every day, Sarah Dean has kept his room a certain way: "You can just sit there and see him grow up" by looking at the pictures.

"He was a smart kid," she said.

While he had religion in his life, Sarah Dean says she doesn't think he was praying in his last half hour.

"He was damned mad," she said, having spoken with his fellow Marines.

Some of them returned because of him and were in the Bedford County Circuit Courtroom where we spoke about Daniel. They'd been comrades in the best sense of the word.

Before he left for Afghanistan, he said he might not come back and he took steps to be kind to his family.

His comrades signed a shirt he'd worn with them and gave it to Sarah Dean.

"They called him 'The Kid,' because he was so young, she said.

Soon it will be five years since McClenney went down fighting.

In those years, "On Christmas Eve... and every now and then," Sarah Dean says, "the light in his room comes on."

It's not a haint, she says.

"It's Daniel telling me he's still with me."