With his eye patch and missing arm, Patrick Cleburne “Clebe” McClary can create quite a stir when he speaks at grade schools.
“Usually the first thing I hear is, ‘Are you a pirate?’ ” he said Friday.
The Vietnam veteran was the guest speaker at the Pierce County Prayer Breakfast at the Tacoma Dome Convention Center. The Greater Tacoma Christian Laymen’s Outreach sponsored the 38th annual breakfast.
McClary’s injuries resulted from hand-to-hand combat during the Vietnam War.
“Folks, I didn’t have to go to Vietnam,” McClary, a motivational speaker from Pawleys Island, South Carolina, told about 1,550 people at the breakfast. “I was a college coach.”
In October 1966, while at the University of South Carolina, McClary witnessed something “I hope I will not see again in person,” he said.
It was a college student burning an American flag.
McClary immediately volunteered for duty in the Marine Corps and soon found himself platoon leader of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam.
His last day of patrol began when his team landed in a valley deep in hostile territory. He found punji stick pits and booby traps. His men dug foxholes on a small hill.
Then, all hell broke loose as a Viet Cong suicide squad attacked. He dived into a pit.
“They were killing themselves, trying to kill us,” McClary recalled. “We were shooting as fast as we could.”
Suddenly an enemy soldier was in the pit with him and exploded a device.
“I realized the blast had blown my left arm off, just above the elbow,” McClary said. A couple of his men were dead.
During the assault PFC Ralph Johnson dived on a grenade.
“He blew himself in half and saved the lives of two Marines,” McClary said. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
McClary also lost an eye and the use of his right arm in the attack, but continued to lead his men until he was evacuated.
He spent over two years in military hospitals, undergoing more than 40 operations.
On that day and after, McClary’s Christian faith sustained him.
“I’ve been going to Sunday school and church ever since nine months before I was born,” McClary said to laughter.
“You may think I suffered and my men suffered on that hill,” he said. But he noted that people can suffer in a wide variety of and less obvious ways.
McClary dispensed advice for parents in the audience. He urged them not to focus on material things.
“Give a few things money can’t buy: honesty, integrity, commitment, discipline,” he said.
And he had advice for young people.
“Fellas, take that cap off when you come into a building, stand up when a lady comes in the room, open a door for a lady,” he said. “And ladies, let them do it.”
Before McClary’s speech, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy cited several problems the community faces: homelessness, heroin use, mental health care, environmental concerns and the lack of family-wage jobs.
“And that’s just part of the list,” she said, and noted exactly how people view those issues can vary widely.
“That’s the beauty of democracy,” McCarthy said. “We all have a voice and a right to be heard. I see it as our civic obligation to add our point of view to the mix.
“But lately I’ve seen a bitter, strident tone in how we speak with each other,” McCarthy continued. “Rather than a civil discourse and an honest debate of ideas, there is rancor and hostility, name-calling and insults.”
She noted that the level of rancor was likely to go up in the months leading to the November election.
“There is no place for hate-filled speech among us,” McCarthy said. “There is no value in shouting down those who disagree with us. There is no love in intolerance or bullying.”
Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland touched on similar themes.
“It feels like lately we’ve lost the ability to have civic discourse in a civilized manner to help solve some of our most pressing issues,” Strickland said.
“Let’s talk about how we solve our problems in the most constructive way. There is definitely so much more that unites us then divides us.”
Each branch on the military was honored at the military-themed breakfast. When the Army was recognized, attendee Linda Morse stood for her late father.
“I stand for him because I’m proud of him,” the Lakewood resident said.