Veterans Day: An Exclusive Excerpt From Be Bold
Stream contributing senior editor Tom Sileo's new book tells the true story of how U.S. Marine Corps Major Megan McClung broke barriers for women at war.
I quite literally stumbled on Major Megan McClung’s story in 2010 while walking past her majestic white headstone in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. The last three lines — “Be bold. Be brief. Be gone.” — naturally jumped out.
As I subsequently shared in front of a National Press Club audience including former Defense Secretary and Iraq War architect Donald Rumsfeld, “Her proud father, who’s a Marine himself, told me that the motto on her headstone was actually instructions that she gave officers in her public affairs unit for dealing with the press. But on a serious note, it’s also how she lived.”
In 2012, I was in Annapolis to do research for what became my first book, Brothers Forever, which was about two U.S. Naval Academy roommates who went on to make the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. During a Run to Honor charity dinner I attended with my future co-author, Gold Star father and retired U.S. Marine Colonel Tom Manion, I finally got the chance to meet Megan’s father, retired U.S. Marine Captain Mike McClung Sr., after communicating by phone and email during the previous two years.
During that special evening, Mike gave me a coin that was handed out to each Megan McClung Memorial Run participant. “You earned this,” he said, which made me feel grateful, but also a bit strange.
I hadn’t “earned” anything by giving a speech or writing a few blog posts and newspaper columns about Megan. I have to do more, I thought at the time.
A decade later and nine years after the sudden passing of Captain Mike McClung, I have written a book about the extraordinary life of U.S. Marine Corps Major Megan McClung. It is being published on this Veterans Day, when all Americans come together honor the brave women and men who have worn our nation’s uniform.
This exclusive excerpt from Be Bold: How a Marine Corps Hero Broke Barriers for Women at War is about Major Megan McClung’s last day on earth almost 16 years ago. It was during that fateful day in Ramadi, Iraq, that she met retired U.S. Marine Corps officer Oliver North, who would wind up publishing this book about Megan’s life. I am eternally grateful to Lieutenant Colonel North and his Fidelis Publishing team for helping Megan’s family and I bring her inspiring story to the world.
Chapter 13 — Be Brief
“It’s a great day to fight. It’s a great day to die.” — Unknown
Megan was almost always enthusiastic, but something was different on a particular Wednesday in Ramadi.
“I’m so excited,” Megan told Newsweek reporter Sarah Childress and her photographer on December 6, 2006. “I get to go out with you guys today!”
Childress was initially taken aback by Megan’s enthusiasm. Military public affairs officers (PAOs) were often wary of “mainstream media hacks,” as Childress and other reporters were accustomed to being called behind their backs. The Iraq War had also become deeply unpopular back home, which led many PAOs to treat journalists with suspicion.
That wasn’t the case with Megan, who could sense the reporter’s surprise at her bright grin and genuine delight. Megan was itching to show Newsweek what was really going on in Ramadi, where U.S. troops and local tribes were almost constantly battling al-Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent fighters. Despite heavy losses during the Battle of Ramadi, the tireless efforts of U.S. Army soldiers, U.S. Air Force airmen, U.S. Navy SEALs, and Megan’s fellow U.S. Marines finally injected some confidence into those fighting so hard to wrest the war-ravaged city from al-Qaeda’s ruthless grip.
While the city was still an extremely dangerous place, the Sunni Awakening firmly took root throughout Anbar Province, where Megan had been deployed for almost a year. Megan couldn’t wait to show Childress how conditions on the ground were finally starting to improve in Ramadi, where the Awakening began a few months earlier.
“I mean this — we are really glad you’re here,” Megan said to the reporter. “I could write press releases until I’m blue in the face, but it’s your stories that really get out there.”
“It’s an honor to finally meet you, Colonel,” Megan said on that same unusually cold, damp morning. “Thank you for coming back to Ramadi to see what we’ve been doing here.”
Megan, whose slight nervousness was masked by boundless passion for her job, was addressing retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. A highly decorated hero of the Vietnam War, North later became a household name during the Iran Contra affair that rocked the nation for much of 1986 and 1987. After a run for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, North hosted a hit radio show and Equal Time on MSNBC.
In January 2001 North began hosting War Stories with Oliver North on Fox News Channel, and shortly after 9/11 he also served as a Fox News war correspondent. His award-winning War Stories show (now available on tubitv.com) is now the longest running, continuously broadcast military documentary series in history. The War Stories series offers viewers a unique perspective from battlefields around the world as North and his crew embedded with U.S. and allied troops.
North’s Fox News War Stories show created a heroic image for many in the U.S. Marines Corps. Escorting “Ollie” and his Fox News crew through Ramadi was easily the most high-profile assignment of Megan’s career — and she was ready. For several weeks, Megan stayed up late at night to plan every single movement of North’s embeds in Ramadi — then the most dangerous place on planet earth.
The North Fox News team’s helicopter flight in from Baghdad to Ramadi was delayed by half a day — an inconvenience all but forgotten as soon as Megan handed everyone hot cups of coffee and started helping them load their camera gear into a dust-encrusted Humvee.
“Lord, please keep everyone on my team safe today,” Megan prayed just before leaving Camp Ar Ramadi early on the morning of December 6, 2006.
Even though she knew the enemy might well be lurking in the shadows, it was obvious to everyone — including North and Childress — Major McClung believed in what she was doing in Iraq. These two upcoming embeds marked her best and biggest chance to finally show off the military’s progress in Ramadi to two high-profile American news outlets.
She spent most of that Wednesday in a five-vehicle convoy scouting locations and units where the visiting correspondents could meet U.S. and Iraqi security personnel. The Humvee carrying Megan included (Captain Travis) Patriquin, (Specialist Vincent) Pomante, and their driver, Specialist James Lewis Clark Jr. Despite being the only Marine in the vehicle, Megan had already spent more than two months working closely with her male U.S. Army counterparts, all of whom admired her sense of mission, purpose — and humor.
“Don’t make me look like a fool in front of Ollie North, okay guys?” Megan joked as their journey began. Megan was eager to prove what she’d been saying for weeks: Ramadi was a different place than the violent hellhole it had been a few short months earlier.
Everything went smoothly with the Fox News crew, and North was impressed by Megan’s passion for those around her, including the Iraqi civilians. Indeed, the retired lieutenant colonel saw tangible signs of progress he and his producers planned to share with millions of cable news viewers.
As the day’s first media tour concluded, Megan bid farewell to North as the American convoy dropped the journalists off at a nearby Marine base known as “Hurricane Point.” After lunch, the Fox News crew headed to Al Taqaddum, where Gunnery Sergeant (Willie) Ellerbrock was waiting, to catch an evening flight out of Iraq.
“Thank you very much, Major,” North said to Megan. “You are a great Marine.”
“Thank you, sir!” Megan said with a smile brighter than the sun reflecting off the desert sand.