Support our mission

WASHINGTON — The third time he was shot was the luckiest day of Lance Cpl. John McClellan’s life.

A sniper’s bullet somehow flew barely under the Marine’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 brain, and tore its way out through the back of his neck.

But it missed his carotid artery by the thickness of a few sheets of paper. And it missed vital sections of his brain. It missed his vision and vocal controls, too.

And it didn’t kill him.

McClellan is recovering at a rehabilitation center in Florida, and his family is thanking God and the military medical system for his survival.

Doctors told his family that 99 of 100 patients with similar injuries die. But he was the other one.

“I still can’t walk right for now,” he said. “But I’m pretty happy anyway.”

The irony is that the 20-year-old McClellan was known as “Lucky” by his fellow Marines even before his latest miracle.

In October 2005, Stars and Stripes ran a story about how members of Company E’s combined anti-armor team, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division had been teasing McClellan for getting shot twice in one week during patrols in Afghanistan.

Those two hits were both in his right arm, one near the wrist and the other by the shoulder. Both were superficial, and earned him the nickname of “bullet sponge” from his relieved teammates.

He even joked with Stripes then that “the third time’s a charm.”

McClellan finished that tour of duty in Afghanistan without any more close calls. He returned home, then redeployed to Iraq this September.

He had been in Haditha for less than a month when that third time came.

“I really don’t remember any of it,” he said. “I was standing post in a tower with another guy. The next thing I remember is waking up in Bethesda three days later.”

The Marines told him an unlucky shot from a hidden sniper took him down. As corpsmen rushed to McClellan’s aid, his teammates delivered a fatal volley to that shooter.

In those missing three days, McClellan was sped from the tower triage to an field hospital, then to Germany and back to the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He has gotten a chance to thank a few of the doctors who worked on him, but most of them never saw him conscious.

His mother, Connie, said doctors initially told her he’d be lucky to live. When he survived, they said he’d be lucky to avoid major brain damage. When his brain functions stabilized, they said his hearing and vision might be beyond repair.

“Now he might have to wear a hearing aid for his left ear, but his vision is fine,” she said. “That’s a problem, but considering the injury he had, we’re on cloud nine.”

McClellan still has to regain strength in nearly all of his muscles and may need to have a nerve transplant to regain motion in the left side of his face. He expects he’ll have to finish his military career in a desk job if he isn’t medically retired.

His mother, who can joke about the situation now, said he’ll never return to combat “because I told him if he does, I’ll kill him.”

Either way he faces months of recovery, but that’s going so well so far that two weeks ago doctors moved him down to Florida to begin his rehab work, and therapists there think he’ll be able to go home to Columbia, Mo., by Thanksgiving.

When that happens he’ll be able to show off his third Purple Heart, too, presented to him before he left Bethesda. His mother has been carrying around the first two since he was hurt.

“I didn’t really think about being shot again,” he said. “We knew we were going to a dangerous area, and I knew it was a possibility. But I wasn’t thinking about it.

“I’m just happy to be alive.”

Read the previous story on McClellan here.

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up