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Marine killed in Iraq awarded Navy Cross

Cpl. Jason S. Clairday is posthumously honored at Camp Pendleton for his valor in storming an insurgent stronghold to rescue trapped Marines.

June 05, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

CAMP PENDLETON — More than 140,000 Marines have served in Iraq or Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 attacks. Only 18 have received the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor for combat bravery.

On Monday, the family of the 18th recipient, Cpl. Jason S. Clairday, gathered to receive his posthumous award and to hear the young man, who was 21 when he died, remembered as one "who set the standard for others to follow."

Clairday was awarded the Navy Cross for leading Marines in storming an insurgent stronghold in Fallouja in December 2004 to support Marines pinned down inside the home. Already wounded in the first assault, he refused to leave the fight and insisted on leading a second assault.

"He was told to evacuate; he was supposed to evacuate," said Col. Larry Nicholson. "He did not. He rallied his Marines and said, 'We're going in strong.' "

With grenades and M-16 fire, Clairday and his fire-team members killed the insurgents inside the home and saved several Marines. But wounds he suffered during the second assault proved fatal.

Travis Icard, who served with Clairday in Fallouja, told Marines and others attending the ceremony that his former fire-team leader "guided me to be a better Marine and to be a better man.... Cpl. Clairday taught me things you can't learn in a textbook. He was always hard-working but never hard to work with."

Nicholson, commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, credited the bravery of Clairday and other Marines who "went into that city and took it away from the terrorists" for improvements in Fallouja, which is no longer controlled by insurgents.

Clairday, of Salem, Ark., played baseball in high school, sang in the church choir and went into the Marines looking for stability in his life.

He married his high school sweetheart only weeks before he deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in September 2004.

The couple had dreamed of having seven children and living their lives in rural Arkansas. Sarah Clairday had a miscarriage shortly before her husband deployed, but both figured they would have plenty of time to try again in the future.

Clairday was set to leave the Marine Corps in spring 2005 and attend college in hopes of becoming a counselor to troubled children.

While in Iraq, he sent e-mails to his wife and other family members, and made occasional phone calls. He was always upbeat and never let on that his battalion was involved in close combat.

"He didn't want us to worry," said his mother-in-law, Cindy McCullough. "He never told us about bad things. He told us never to turn on TV, but that was the first thing I did every morning. He always put on a brave front and said, 'Take care of my baby doll.' "

Sometimes he would ask the family to send him things that were scarce in Fallouja: beef jerky and cans of chewing tobacco.

His last call was just a few days before his death. "He told me goodbye at the end of the conversation," McCullough said. "That was strange. He had never done that before. It was like maybe he knew something."

Sarah Clairday, 22, said she is struggling to mend her life and begin anew without her husband.

She returned to college after his death but found that she couldn't concentrate.

She said she kept remembering the day in December 2004 when an instructor quietly interrupted a test she was taking and told her to go home because the Marines had something to tell her about her husband.

When he was killed, Clairday's battalion was part of a second sweep through Fallouja, searching for insurgents who might have sneaked back into the city west of Baghdad after the November battle.

Clairday's squad was on security patrol, backing other squads that were assaulting houses. Hearing that a squad was cornered inside a house, he and his Marines scrambled to the roof of a three-story building and jumped a 4-foot gap to reach the roof of that house and attempt to get the Marines out safely.

Sarah Clairday, who after her husband's death got a tattoo of a blue butterfly on her back along with the phrase "In Memory of Jason," said his heroism does not surprise her. In the Marine Corps, she said, he had found the stability he had sought and "the Marines were his brothers."

She said her husband was never one to leave things halffinished, whether it was trapping beavers on a lake or getting tattoos -- of which he had several, including Semper Fi, the Marine Corps motto meaning "always faithful."

"It was like in baseball, he was the biggest hustler, the team leader," his widow said in an interview. "If they were down and going to get beat, he'd find a way to bring everyone up and find a way to win."

She said she is proud of the Navy Cross but cannot help thinking that if her husband had been a little less brave, he might be alive today.

"We were supposed to be a family," she said, tears filling her eyes. "It's like he chose his military family over us in the heat of the moment, but I guess you have to do what you have to do."

tony.perry@latimes.com

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