‘Every tear I cried, he wiped away. He was the most amazing man’
By CARLOS BONGIOANNI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 6, 2016
Jan. 5, 2016 Marjah, Afghanistan
On the morning of Jan. 5 — the day her son, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew McClintock, died in combat — Joyce Montoya- Helgesen got a news alert that a U.S. soldier was killed in Afghanistan. It unnerved her. She prayed, “Please, don’t let it be Matthew.” The whole day at work, she felt unsettled and went home early.
She was scheduled to fly the next day to Tacoma, Wash., to meet her grandson, Declan, born Oct. 21, 2015. She intended to help her son’s wife, Alexandra, pack and fly back with her to Albuquerque, N.M., where the family anticipated spending a few weeks to get acquainted with the newborn.
While preparing for that trip, Montoya-Helgesen got the devastating news. “I fell to my knees, thinking, ‘I just knew it was going to be him,’ ” she said.
She flew to Tacoma and back to Albuquerque as planned. However, the joy of the reunion turned into mourning. McClintock’s mother and wife prepared for memorial services — the first in Albuquerque on Jan. 31, the second in Tacoma on Feb. 25 and the third during his burial at Arlington National Cemetery on March 7.
Days before the Arlington ceremony, McClintock was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Her son’s courage and gallantry detailed in the citation for the award, the nation’s third-highest for valor, left Montoya-Helgesen “awed” that she had “raised that kind of man.”
She told how he wanted to join the Army straight out of high school, but at her pleading, he attended the University of New Mexico for two years. “He was so smart. He got straight A’s,” she said. But going to college wasn’t his idea.
Respectful as he was of his mother’s desires, McClintock was also determined to follow his own dreams.
“He wanted to be in the Army … to be in Special Forces … to be married … to have a house and … to have a son. And all those things happened in that order,” his mother said.
She called his selflessness “his biggest attribute.” He loved helping others, giving aid to people in the foreign countries where he deployed, or extending himself to make new acquaintances or personnel feel at ease.
His sense of humor and witty remarks made him fun to be around.
Losing such a son, she said, “just shakes you to the core. There are no words for it. You just have this big hole in your heart.
“The only part that makes you able to breathe and go on is that he did it heroically, he did it for others. … It makes it so you can wake up in the morning and realize, ‘My son did good.’ ”
McClintock joined the Army in 2006, making it into Special Forces a few years later. Though he “absolutely thrived” in that environment, his mother said he left the service in 2014, grieving the death of a fellow Green Beret.
While serving in the National Guard, he realized how much he missed Army life and was working to get back on active duty.
McClintock was assigned to 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group when his unit, Operational Detachment Alpha 9115, Company A, deployed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2015. He was 30 when he died.
‘This is what we do’
A dense fog had rolled over the Afghan village of Marjah in Helmand province, forcing 100 coalition troops to halt the clearing operations they had initiated an hour or so before midnight Jan. 4. The ensuing morning, as the fog lifted about 9 a.m., enemy rounds rained down on the force as they prepared to push out from the compound they had claimed as their command post the night before.
McClintock had no time to think when a bullet, shot from at least 1,500 feet out, passed through a 4-by-2-foot break in the wall, hitting Senior Airman Ryan Rynkowski in the right thigh. With bullets flying about him, McClintock began administering medical aid. While helping move the airman to a safer location, McClintock radioed for a medevac.
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew arrived but landed in the narrowest portion of the compound, where the rotors hit the wall, rendering the bird inoperable.
“That’s when I knew that the day was going poorly,” said Master Sgt. Dan Gholston, the team sergeant of McClintock’s Special Forces detachment.
After the helicopter crashed the compound, the enemy fighters really picked up their attack, Gholston said. “That’s a big day for the insurgents. They thought they had downed it. They did not. The rotors hit the wall. … But anytime they can down an aircraft, that’s a huge win for them.”
Fearing that Rynkowski might lose his leg if he wasn’t evacuated quickly, the team knew they had to clear another medevac landing zone, even though they were surrounded by enemy fighters.
So they went to a field north of the compound. As others provided covering fire, McClintock repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he stood fully erect throwing smoke grenades while trying to direct in a medevac. First one, then a second Black Hawk attempted to land. Both left the area after coming under heavy fire; a crew chief on one aircraft was wounded.
Gholston said his team was not informed of a decision made higher in the chain of command that no more helicopters would be sent. They learned later that no more Black Hawks were available for a medevac mission, and superiors were unwilling to risk sending in a CH-47 until nighttime to exfiltrate the force. Unaware of those decisions, team members decided to try to secure a landing zone by taking a compound to their south. They aborted that mission after coming under intense fire.
Back at the compound, the team talked of trying to secure a compound to the east.
“We are going to get lit up out there,” Gholston recalled a team member saying. He said McClintock responded, saying they had to try to save Rynkowski: “This is what we do.”
An amazing man
That selfless portrayal of her husband doesn’t surprise Alexandra McClintock. She knew he was the type of man to willingly lay down his life for others. But he was also “the least confrontational guy in the whole world.”
In the three years they knew each other, “I never heard him raise his voice, ever,” she said. When the neighbors’ music was too loud, she’d urge him to do something about it. He preferred keeping the peace.
“My husband threw a shoe at a spider,” rather than go after it to kill it, she recalled.
Those facts portray the gentler side of the courageous Silver Star recipient who fearlessly runs into battle to engage the enemy, giving no thought for his own safety.
Describing her husband as being “shy, snarky, sarcastic” and somewhat “socially awkward,” Alexandra recalled how she totally misjudged him when they first met.
Friends had arranged for the two to meet at a concert. She didn’t know he was a Special Forces soldier and, in her eyes, he didn’t look or act the part. So it irked her that he was wearing a Special Forces hoodie. She was convinced he was wearing it to pick up women.
So she called him out on it: “You’re so disgusting. I can’t believe you’d do this just to meet women when there are actual soldiers out there fighting.”
He didn’t defend himself. But a friend stepped in to inform her that they were all Green Berets.
Humiliated, she bought them all drinks and excused herself. Later that night, when everyone else was shunning her, McClintock sought her out, telling her he was leaving. She said she’d try to see him at an upcoming fundraising event.
“Do or do not. There is no try,” he told her.
“Did you just quote ‘Star Wars’ to me?” she asked.
“Did you just recognize ‘Star Wars?’ ” he responded.
Both were huge fans of the movie and talked for hours the rest of the evening. Two days later they had their first date. About a year later, on Christmas Eve 2013, they were married.
McClintock made it home from Afghanistan one day before the birth of their son, Declan. Alexandra McClintock was soon diagnosed with severe postpartum depression and related disorders. She said she was a wreck, crying all the time, unable to eat, sleep or adequately care for their son.
McClintock jumped into action. In the two weeks he was home, he took his wife to several doctors and to lactation appointments to learn how to help his wife feed their child. He taught her how to change diapers.
“Every tear I cried, he wiped away. He was the most amazing man … not just as a Green Beret, but as a husband and as a father,” she said.
She recalled telling her husband before his deployment to Afghanistan that she didn’t want to be “the next pregnant lady at Arlington getting the flag. I never told him that I didn’t want to be the next lady holding a baby getting the flag. I really didn’t think that was an option. I knew Matt wanted to be a dad so bad, that he’d come home.”
She said that with her postpartum issues, “you think you’re not going to get in a darker place. And then two guys come tell you your husband is dead, and suddenly, you’re in a darker place.”
About noon that day in Marjah, McClintock and his team set out to try and secure the compound to their east. As they slogged their way through a water-filled irrigation ditch running parallel to the road, a bullet hit McClintock’s temple above his left ear just below his helmet. He was still breathing, but in critical condition as the bullet went through both lobes of his brain. Several teammates were at his side providing what medical aid they could as they tried to keep themselves and McClintock from being exposed to the rounds kicking up the dirt all around them.
“We were getting hammered,” Gholston said of the troops in the ditch. “We were receiving a hellacious amount of sniper and mortar fire.”
Pinned down, the group needed the compound to their north destroyed. A gun run by an F-16 had little effect, said Gholston, and when orders were finally given to drop 500-pound bombs on the compound, the first turned out to be a dud and the second failed to drop from the aircraft’s wing.
The medic advised not moving McClintock, but after an hour in the ditch with no sign of sufficient air support, Gholston ordered the team back to the compound. As the medic kept McClintock’s head above water, two others pulled and pushed his body.
McClintock remained alive for nearly three hours after getting hit. Three CH-47 helicopters arrived about 2 a.m. Jan. 6 to carry out the troops, including the injured airman Rynkowski and McClintock’s body.
Recognizing the heroes
Often, servicemembers who receive awards for valorous acts deflect the praise, noting they did nothing out of the ordinary. Many accept the award on behalf of the whole unit with whom they fought or for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Alexandra McClintock believes her husband was not the only one who fought that day who deserves an award. She expresses immense gratitude for her husband’s best friend who was among those who kept McClintock’s body from being exposed to further strikes and who helped drag his body back to the compound. He was also there holding McClintock’s hand when he died, and he escorted the body back to the States.
Gholston believes every soldier in the ditch that day with McClintock deserves a valor award. Those in the compound surrounded by the enemy “were doing heroic and valorous deeds all day,” he said.
But given the nature of Special Forces units, which historically get very little recognition for their actions, he suspects that the recommendations he has made will be downgraded.
And if McClintock hadn’t died that day, he likely would not have gotten the Silver Star.
“My husband gets the recognition because he died,” said Alexandra McClintock. “The recognition means nothing to him anymore. It means everything to me,” she said.
She started the nonprofit Matthew Quinn McClintock Foundation as a way to raise awareness for veterans and to help out other families suffering the loss of a loved one in combat, all the while keeping her husband’s memory alive.