All these years later, Clebe McClary continues to soldier on.
It’s been nearly half a century — March 3, 1968, to be exact — since McClary, a young Marine lieutenant from South Carolina, was severely wounded during his 19th reconnaissance mission in Vietnam. He lost his left arm and his left eye during hand-to-hand combat deep in hostile territory. He nearly died, in fact, and at the time, he believed he’d have been better off if he had died.
Today, though, McClary remains one of the nation’s most sought-after motivational speakers, sharing his powerful story of courage, determination, strength and hope to inspire others.
“Are you gonna get bitter, or are you gonna get better?” he said Thursday morning to a rapt audience of students at Wesleyan Christian Academy. “I chose to get better, and you can, too.”
Even after losing his arm and his eye that day, McClary valiantly continued to lead his men in battle as best he could. Following the battle, though, he found himself in a military hospital, believing he was about to die.
“I had given up,” he explained.
An unexpected visitor — professional golfer Billy Casper, who died this past weekend — saved McClary’s life, he says.
According to McClary, Casper had agreed to visit with wounded soldiers, and when he saw the heavily bandaged McClary in the corner of the room, he headed in his direction.
“Don’t go over there,” a doctor told Casper. “That guy’s not gonna make it.”
Casper walked to McClary’s bedside anyway, leaned in close and identified himself to the young Marine, whose eyes had been temporarily sewn shut.
“He said, ‘I love you and I’m praying for you,’” McClary recalled. “He said, ‘Thank you for what you did. God’s got a purpose for your life.’ For me, it was like a slap in the face, because I needed to hear that. I believe God sent him — I really do.”
The visit gave McClary hope and inspired him to do what soldiers do — to soldier on. Over the next two years, McClary went from one military hospital to another, undergoing more than 30 major surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy. But he never gave up.
At last year’s Masters golf tournament, McCrary had the opportunity to meet Casper and thank him for saving his life, an emotional reunion McCrary says he’ll never forget. When he leaves High Point Friday night, he’ll fly to Utah for Casper’s funeral.
McClary spoke at three schools during the day Thursday — Wesleyan, High Point Central and Westchester Country Day School — and will speak again Thursday evening at High Point University. He’s scheduled to speak Friday morning at the Dean B. Pruett Scale School and at Ferndale Middle School.
That’s a pretty hectic schedule, and McClary admits it wears him down, but it doesn’t stop him.
“I’ve got a little Agent Orange in me, and I’ve got some lung problems really bothering me that I got about a year ago, so I’m not as strong as I used to be,” he said Thursday following his presentation at Wesleyan.
“I had some trouble sleeping last night — I coughed a lot. I really don’t enjoy travel — not flying or driving — it ain’t much fun like it used to be. But you know, if I get to help one person, it’s worthwhile. You just never know what’ll happen — lives can be changed.”
Stories abound of lives that have been changed by hearing McClary’s inspiring story, according to Paul Lessard, who brought McClary to High Point. Lessard heard McClary speak nearly 40 years ago and has been friends with him ever since.
“Clebe really changed my life, and I thought perhaps he could do the same for other young people,” Lessard said. “He has taught me about what it means to be a man of integrity, courage and vision — these are character traits that never go out of style. Clebe’s example of courage, commitment and servant leadership have always been a benchmark for me for over 38 years.”
Lessard brought McClary to High Point through the Lighthouse Project, which brings nationally acclaimed speakers to town, with the idea of exposing students to positive role models who are impacting the world with their vision, character and faith. Lessard established the Lighthouse Project in 1994, using the monetary stipend he received when he won a Carnegie Hero Medal for saving an elderly woman from drowning in a submerged car.
The speaker that first year was McClary, and Lessard decided to bring him back this year for the Lighthouse Project’s 20th anniversary.
“Clebe is one of my oldest friends, and I wanted to share him with these kids,” Lessard said. “We need people like him — they’re kind of like a conscience for us.”
Photo and story courtesy of Jimmy Tomlin/HPE