05/16/04 — Goldsboro man earns Bronze Star for service in Iraq

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Goldsboro man earns Bronze Star for service in Iraq

By Sam Atkins
Published in News on May 16, 2004 9:12 AM

Thousands of red and green lights flashed in the dark sky over the head of Spc. Gene "Gino" McClellan Jr.

They resembled fireworks, he said, but they were not signs of people celebrating freedom. They were bullets bombarding his company in Iraq as it patrolled the Tigris River.

McClellan is a Goldsboro native and a 1998 graduate of Charles B. Aycock High School. He entered the U.S. Army in 2000 while attending Wayne Community College. He deployed in February 2003 and was stationed in Baghdad until the next month. He was then stationed in Tikrit from April through September.

McClellan served as a boat operator in the first platoon of the 814th Engineer Multi-Role Bridge Company, which is part of the 130th Engineer Brigade.

Fighting on the front lines in Baghdad was not uncommon for McClellan, and he recalls one night when his company was with the 269th Armor Battalion, fighting their way to Baghdad.

After making it in four miles, they fought for 22 straight days as the combatants relentlessly fired whatever ammunition they could find. His company hardly slept. All the soldiers had to eat were MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat.

McClellan, 23, said he lost around 36 pounds during his 10-month deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He and his crew patrolled the Tigris River in Tikrit in 27-foot boats. The crew's role was to make sure the Iraqis new the company controlled both sides of the river.

He was chosen among 14 of his peers to conduct boat patrols around Baghdad.

He also led a group of soldiers along the Tigris to seize several Iraqi operational boats and assisted in the recovery and reconstruction of an Iraqi float bridge to be used as a command post while on the water.

He led his fellow soldiers on numerous river patrols in support of Operation Peninsula Strike, and he safely led his crew out of an enemy ambush when his boat came under fire.

Another achievement was his contribution to building a 556-meter floating bridge, which is the largest bridge ever built in a combat zone, he said. It took three companies to build it, and they each were in charge of a section.

He described the bridge as floating Lego pieces with latches connecting the pieces. The soldiers pulled a rope to get the pieces to come together. It took less than three hours to complete his section, which was ahead of schedule.

After 10 months, McClellan returned to the United States. He retired from the Army in January.

Then, about a month ago, he received a surprise package in the mail. He opened the cardboard box and slowly pulled out a Bronze Star.

As he held it in his hand, a sense of wonderment and pride overcame him.

"I didn't ever expect to get it," he said.

The combat medal was awarded for his courage and leadership under fire.

"Spc. McClellan is a dedicated, stand-out soldier whose attitude, discipline and spirit was critical to success," said Raymund C. Nacino, company commander. "His leadership and technical competence was well above his pay grade."

McClellan said his parents, Gene and Betty; his wife, Heather Lacy, and his grandfather were all proud when they heard he had received the combat medal.

McClellan now works for Thompson Pump and Wellpoint Systems in Goldsboro.

He said most of the 120 soldiers in his company have retired. All of them have returned home from their deployment, and some are expected to deploy again soon.

"There are a lot of people out there that deserve more," he said.