A Marine makes it home for holidays

December 24, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

Scheduled to leave Iraq last month, Marine Cpl. Terrell McClain could have made it home for Christmas the easy way.

But the Randallstown native re-enlisted, extending his stay there. It took a sniper's bullet through the elbow Dec. 1 to send McClain, 23, back to his family in time for the holidays.

About 50 of his relatives and friends celebrated his return at a surprise party yesterday at his mother-in-law's Southwest Baltimore church, though the guest of honor expressed ambivalence about leaving his fellow Marines behind.

"This is crazy," McClain said, moments after walking into the Greater Church of the Risen Savior to find himself swarmed by tearful aunts, beaming uncles, even a high school teacher from Milford Mill Academy. "Some of these people I have not seen in years."

McClain gamely shook hands with all comers, despite the ache in his right arm, which suffered nerve damage from the shooting. He said military doctors told him he might make a full recovery.

While others cried, McClain maintained his composure throughout the speeches made in his honor, but when it came time for him to speak, his voice took on a halting, trembling tone as he tried to explain his mixed feelings.

"I left a lot of guys over there," he said. "They are my family, too."

Despite his misgivings, McClain said he was "ecstatic" to be reunited this month with his wife and three children. His youngest was born just two days before he was deployed to Iraq on July 14.

A Humvee vehicle commander, McClain was wounded while searching a gas station in Husaybah, near the Syrian border, whose owner was suspected of supplying insurgents with fuel.

The first shot went straight through his right elbow and knocked him to the ground, he said. The second missed his head by a few feet. He managed to jump back into the Humvee and tell his Marines to radio for a helicopter evacuation.

Given the extreme violence in Iraq in recent months, McClain considers himself lucky. "After the first month of being there, I just thought my luck was going to run out," he said, "and I was either going to get seriously hurt, ... or I was going to die."

And yet he wanted to stay.

McClain's feelings are typical of many soldiers who form deep bonds on the battlefield, said his uncle, James Brunson of Baltimore, an Army master sergeant who served in Iraq from 2004 into 2005, and who will return for another tour next month.

Brunson, 44, said strong displays of family support are crucial in helping young soldiers readjust to life back home. "It just validates that there is another side to you. We are not just trained killers. We are not programmed."

That is what motivated the Rev. Denise Folks, who is McClain's mother-in-law, to host the welcome-back reception at her church. "I did not believe he should come home and not be honored and respected," she said.

After Christmas in Baltimore, the McClains will return to North Carolina, where they have just bought their first home. McClain, who is with the 2nd Force Service Support Group, expects to be stationed at Camp Lejeune as a combat instructor. But under the terms of his re-enlistment, he could be redeployed in three years.

"I would go back, yes," he said, without hesitation.

gadi.gechter@baltsun.com

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