"How about some lunch," said McClung, popping her brown eyes wide open as she flashed me a big smile. It was an obvious effort to cheer me up, and I gratefully accepted. McClung put a cap over her straight red hair and led me to the chow hall. As we sat down to eat, she gave me an overview of the situation in Ramadi, where insurgents have control of whole swaths of the downtown area. Retaking the city, McClung explained, would not involve an assault of the kind the Marines staged against Fallujah in 2004. "We don't want to Fallujah Ramadi," said McClung, making me laugh. "We don't want to destroy the city to save it." McClung went on: Beefed-up local police forces would wrest the city from insurgents block by block instead, with local tribal leaders providing fresh recruits. Some new tribal flatfoots were already on the streets. The tide in Ramadi, McClung said, was turning. "It's getting better," McClung said. "I think Iraq in general is getting better."
I scoffed. Regardless of the situation in Ramadi, casually suggesting Iraq as a whole was on the mend seemed an insult to both our intelligence, especially hers. She was a Naval Academy graduate who went on to pursue a master's in criminal justice at Boston University. Was she kidding?
"If Iraq is getting better, why do 100,000 people leave every month?" I said, pointing to statistics from a recent U.N. report. "Well then what are all these people doing here?" she said with a laugh. "Iraq has about 27 million people in it. Give it some time, and it will empty out," I said, keeping a straight face. "I live in Baghdad, outside the Green Zone, and it's not a happy place." Her smile vanished. "No," she said. "Not a happy place."
I felt like an ass as a silence fell over our table. I had just offended probably the nicest person I could hope to meet in Ramadi. But before I could apologize, McClung was all sunny again, smiling and moving to the edge of her chair as she talked about her experiences in Iraq. Originally from Mission Viejo in southern California, McClung was an intense athlete with six Ironman competitions under her belt. She talked longingly of the runs she'd done along the Tigris River in Baghdad, where she was based before Ramadi. We chatted more about other small things. Soon enough it was time for us to go. I was off for a few days to Hurricane Point, a combat outpost in Ramadi just beyond the main base. After that McClung and I were to link up again at Camp Ramadi so she could show me around other parts of the city herself. I left eager to see her again.
I heard the news as I stood outside the patients' ward of the field hospital at Camp Ramadi five days later. Three had been killed by a roadside bomb, we were told. McClung was among them. I had seen her briefly only the day before, and we had plans to meet that afternoon. But it was very late at night when I finally saw her resting in the morgue alongside her slain comrades, Spc. Vincent Pomante and Capt. Travis Patriquin. I watched at the edge of the room as the medics unzipped the body bags one by one before stepping forward to take a long look at McClung.
I don't know what number McClung was in the count of Americans who've died in Iraq, a figure that reached 3,000 New Year's Eve. But she was the first member of the military I've personally known, if only briefly, who's been killed. The shock and sadness I felt upon seeing her dead is nothing more than a splinter of pain compared to what those who loved her must now feel. Still, the moment allowed me to begin to grasp the depth of anguish felt now by so many Americans and Iraqis who've lost loved ones to the conflict. It's staggering. The shared miseries already seem bottomless as the death toll climbs higher still with the passing of each day here.