The 23-year-old is maybe a bit taller and more buff - make that a lot more buff - in a black rock festival T-shirt, baggy jeans and a bright green cap with a shamrock on it. He's unshaven and says he’s a bit tired from his morning run but feels great on this unseasonably warm February day. Crazy Missouri weather; he's used to it.
McClellan’s grew up an only child in Columbia, Mo. (CoMo, he and his friends call it), and attended Hickman High School just north of the Columbia College main campus. His parents are both in insurance, so he didn't grow up poor: A normal childhood. Then came 9/11 and McClellan says he was jolted out of complacency.
So much so that he decided to join the Marine Corps. Many kids think their home town is a dreary place and want to escape, and McClellan was no exception; the Marines was his opportunity to do something about 9/11 and get out of CoMo. "The Marines are just more bad a**," he grins. When he grins, the left side of his face doesn't grin quite as much as the right side.
Out of CoMo…
He made it through boot camp in 2004, applied and was accepted into the infantry. He knew darn well he'd be deployed. These days it's just about certain you'll be deployed if you're infantry, and that's what he wanted. His officers saw the fire in him, too, and promoted him to lance corporal.
In June 2005, now-19-year-old Lance Corporal McClellan was deployed to Kunar Province, Afghanistan. His superiors put him in the machine-gun turret of a Humvee, a position which exposes the machine gunner to a heckuva lot of enemy fire. It's about as close to being a human target as you can get but again, McClellan didn't mind.
He was lucky. In October of that year, an enemy bullet ricocheted off the Humvee’s turret and embedded itself his right wrist. The bullet was extracted and McClellan shook off the scratch. He was back in the turret within three days.
And was promptly shot again. This time the bullet penetrated the upper portion of his right arm and exited the rear, but didn't hit any major veins, arteries, muscles or tendons. His fellow Marines called calling him a bullet sponge, "Lucky" and probably other things we can’t say here.
He finished his tour of duty in Afghanistan with a swagger, two Purple Hearts and no more close calls.
The fifth anniversary of 9/11 saw Lance Cpl. McClellan redeployed to Iraq. His parents and especially his mother were scared, but he was confident: how many Marines get three Purple Hearts? "Third time's a charm!" he had joked in an interview in the military publication Stars and Stripes.
On September 26, 2006, McClellan was on patrol in the gritty streets of Haditha, Iraq. Haditha was hot; in November 2005, a convoy of Marines had been ambushed and returned fire, killing 24 apparently innocent civilians, and the locals hadn't forgotten. McClellan? Not worried.
The young lance corporal never knew what hit him. He was shot through the head by a sniper.
The bullet somehow flew under McClellan's helmet, hitting just above his left ear. It severed facial nerves and parts of his ear, ripped a hole in the lower section of his skull and cerebellum, the region at the base of the skull responsible for integrating sensory perception, coordination and motor control. The bullet missed his carotid artery by the thickness of a few sheets of paper, missed the visual nerves and vocal controls, too. The cerebellum damage was different. Trauma to this part of the brain doesn't necessarily cause paralysis, but a direct bullet is a sure-fire paralysis ticket, if the patient even lives, that is.
McClellan was rushed into a chopper and medevaced to a hospital.
The phone call his parents received at midnight was every parent's worst nightmare and Connie McClellan, John's mother, immediately sent a mass e-mail asking her prayer network to pray for her son. Her only child had been shot in the head and according to the doctor she's spoken to, would probably be a vegetable should he survive the massive swelling in his brain.
That e-mail was the first of more than 150 e-mails Connie McClellan sent to her network during the 15 months following the shooting as McClellan was sent first to a better hospital in Germany, then one in Bethesda, Md., then Tampa, Fla. Gradually it became apparent that McClellan would be able to walk again. The facial nerves on his left side were healing so well, his mother said, that she could see his left dimple again when he smiled.
And these are just two in a series of 24 distinct neurological and physiological miracles he and his mother credit to divine intervention. It wasn't easy; the tough Marine had to learn how to walk, talk and drive all over again. Perhaps all of us are miracles, but the doctors in hospitals on three continents had never seen anything like him. Connie McClellan's subsequent book, My Miracle Marine (www.mymiraclemarine.com), has become an instant classic of heartbreak, joy and the power of prayer.
McClellan says doctors still prod and poke him and jokes he's their test rat. "I call myself a test rat because it's all new territory for them. You are not supposed to survive a gunshot wound to the head like I had." McClelllan adds it's impossible to undergo such an experience and not believe in God.
McClellan says his pastor is a workout partner. "He pushes me so hard sometimes!" As a tired McClellan struggles to do one more rep, McClellan says his pastor goads him with, " 'Come on! Just one more! You've gone through all that, you can't do one more?' I believe he [the pastor] is in my life for a reason."
When McClellan was released, taken off active duty and returned to CoMo. He is currently taking intermediate algebra in the morning, then spending time in the Bruce Math Center until about lunch. He says that Columbia College was the right school at the right time: "I'd been looking for a school while waiting to see what the Corps wants to do with me, and Columbia College was just a natural choice. It's big enough to be respectable, small enough to get the personal attention I need."
He says the class and subsequent tutoring "keeps the hamster wheels up here spinning" so well that he aced a recent test and that factors such as
--don't scare the bejeebers out of him as it does non-math-inclined folks.
If discharged, McClellan says he hopes to enter the Wounded Warriors program at Florida Community College, Jacksonville Beach, Fla. to study exercise physiology. Columbia College also participates in the program, which helps warriors get on with their lives, but at the college's Fort Sill, Okla. campus, not blocks from a Florida beach. "Oh, it's gonna be tough," McClellan grins. "But I'm just taking one for the team here."
"I like studying," says McClellan. "I know like the idea of studying. I know I will have to study anatomy, biology, very tough topics [to attain my degree], but that's okay. The human body is fascinating. It's just amazing. I mean, look at me." His mother has commented that he'd better not go back into combat or she'll kill him.
McClellan today is deaf in his left ear but has otherwise recovered so well that he has visited Scotland, met President George Bush and can juggle calls, text messages, appointments and e-mails on his Blackberry.
Just not while driving, right John?