I only heard Marine Major Megan McClung yell once, but it was righteous anger. It was at Camp Ramadi headquarters outside of the city proper and away from the hostilities. The 34-year-old McClung, head Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for Al Anbar Province, was barking at a public affairs sergeant. "Ramadi is the most dangerous city in Iraq and you're going to get your men out there to cover it!"
This was in October and the previous spring it was I who had been angry with McClung. She was a captain then with her headquarters at Camp Fallujah. I had made it clear I wanted to spend my entire embed in Ramadi because that's where the action was and because on my first Iraq trip a year earlier I had seen Fallujah but been denied Ramadi when I wound up "embedded" on a surgical bed in Baghdad.
Yet when I returned this spring to Baghdad to renew my press credentials and expected to fly straight from there to Ramadi, I was dumbfounded that McClung had routed me right back to Fallujah and its environs. When I saw her in person, she explained that she wanted me to spend time with Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) in the area to see how well their training of the Iraqi Army was progressing.
It was a prescient move on her part, especially considering that a tremendous increase in MiTT teams embedded in indigenous units has become a major part of all plans to ultimately turn the war over to the Iraqis. In any case, the trip did end in Ramadi where during just a few short days I saw and reported on more combat, more courage, and more camaraderie than you might see elsewhere in Iraq in a year.
For my October embed, I was in Ramadi the whole time. But again McClung guided me so I saw what I needed to see rather than what I thought I needed to see. After each embed she diligently provided information that I'd been unable to gather in the field. I have two dozen emails from her on my computer, the last dated November 30. The lady I once begrudged I grew to have great respect for.
I also knew her Army colleague at Camp Ramadi, Capt. Travis Patriquin, who provided such an excellent inbriefing that I quoted him at great length in several articles. He was a hero of the ferocious Afghanistan battle known as Operation Anaconda, receiving the Bronze Star. He was also a key player in getting Ramadi’s sheiks to cooperate with Coalition forces to drive out the terrorists.
Most journalists heading into Ramadi require no PAO escort. But for some reason on December 6 McClung, Patriquin, and 22-year-old Army Specialist Vincent J. Pomante III decided to accompany some reporters downtown in a separate vehicle. A tremendous blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) ripped apart their truck, killing all three.
I heard about Patriquin from his cousin, then left a message for McClung offering her my condolences. That’s when I found out about her. McClung has the dubious honor of being the first female Marine officer and highest-ranked female officer overall killed in the war.
Why, people who have never been to war ask me, do I actually like being in a combat zone? Partly it's the feeling of being responsible for the lives of everyone else and they for you. Partly it's that you never feel more alive than when you know you're so close to death. You develop the bond that Shakespeare marvelously described as a "Band of Brothers." And when you leave the killing fields behind, that bond remains and is something that nobody who hasn't experienced it will ever appreciate. You accept that some brothers will die, but that doesn't make it easier when it happens.
"But isn't there something I can do, at the least,Give you money," I asked, "or prepare you a feast?It seems all too little for all that you've done,For being away from your wife and your son."Then his eye welled a tear that held no regret,"Just tell us you love us, and never forget.To fight for our rights back at home while we're gone,To stand your own watch, no matter how long.For when we come home, either standing or dead,To know you remember we fought and we bled.Is payment enough, and with that we will trust,That we mattered to you as you mattered to us."
Semper Fi, Megan.