CORTLAND, N.Y. — Marine Allan A. Clark Jr. asked his wife Roxanne to park his wheelchair in the shade of a small tree Memorial Day morning after watching the ceremony in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Main Street. The couple took a short rest before heading over to afternoon ceremony at Courthouse Park in front of the war memorials.
“What does it mean to me?” Clark mused over the Memorial Day holiday. “Pride. Freedom. The chance to meet other veterans.”
Clark, a combat engineer who served from 1979 to 1993, moved with his wife to Pendleton Street this Fall. Clark is originally from Oswego County and is getting to know other veterans in the community.
The Disabled American Veterans Cortland Memorial Chapter #153 on Owego Street has been a big help, Clark said, adding he is finding other veterans there he can share his combat experiences and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder struggles with.
Clark said he was sent with other Marines to explode drug reffineries in the early 1990’s in the mountains of Afghanistan. Historically, Afghanistan was in a fragile state during the last decade of the 20th Century. The Soviet Union was withdrawing troops from the Cold War battle ground under pressure from Islamic revolutionary groups that were supported in part by the United States. Afghanistan’s communist government was overthrown and civil war reigned supreme. Lawlessness dominated outside of the capital city of Kabul, aiding the rise of the Taliban in 1994.
While Clark was serving in Afghanistan, he was shot in the back and lost the ability to move his legs.
“I was after a sniper and I thought I got him,” Clark said. “But apparently not. He got me.”
Clark’s spotter cauterized the wound with his knife, but Clark couldn’t run or retreat. His spotter refused to leave his side and several hours later both were captured.
During Clark’s nearly year-long imprisonment he was forced to watch the execution of his fellow Marine.
“They killed him point blank, then they picked him up and shot him again,” Clark said. The second shot was meant to traumatize Clark further, he said.
After ten and a half months of imprisonment, his captors let their guard down during a supply run to the valley below and Clark was able to crawl away and escape.
“They gave me an inch and I took several miles,” Clark said of his captors. “I made it to an Army MASH unit.”
While at the mobile hospital he learned he had been officially listed as Killed In Action and his family had been informed of his supposed death.
When he returned to his shocked loved ones he told them, “I’m sore, hurtin’, but I’m pretty well alive.”
After 14 years in service, Clark received an honorable medical discharge from the Marines Corps.
“I wanted to do 25,” Clark said, but he couldn’t stomach the “desk job” the Corps offered him after his return. “It’s like the saying, ‘It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure,’” said Clark, quoting a Navy slogan from the 1980’s.
Before his mission in Afghanistan, Clark served all over the world, including at stations in Europe, as well as on missions in Lebanon, Columbia and Panama.
His travels and service brought home to Clark all the things Americans take for granted.
Clark remembered cities he’s been to where half the buildings are in ruins and citizens are sneaking around to gather food.
“They’re children blowing up soldiers,” said Clark, referring to suicide bombers. “You take things for granted until you see something like that.”
His visits with the other veterans at the Owego Street post help him process through the traumas he’s seen, Clark said.
“I just recently started talking to other veterans about the past,” he said. “But it’s taken me a long time.”
Clark said before he would just try to bury his memories and move on. “Sometimes it works he said, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said.
Life since the Corps has been hard for Clark in other ways, too. He’s suffered two strokes and depends on an oxygen tank. But he was able to relearn to walk using braces during therapy sessions that stretched from 2009 to 2012, he said.
“Even with braces, I bounce off the walls,” Clark said, adding people on the street get the wrong impression of his unsteadiness. “They think I’m just another drug addict or alcoholic because I fall.”
Clark opted to use his wheelchair Monday as the walk from Pendleton Street to Main Street for the morning ceremony, followed by the afternoon ceremony at the Courthouse war memorials, was just too much for his legs.
But he made it to the ceremonies to witness the remembrance of the sacrifices of servicemembers just like him to protect United States freedoms by the citizens his sacrifice blesses.
“Freedom is for people like you and your wife and my son, so if you want to go take a picnic, you can,” Clark said. “It’s the freedom you take for granted.”