COLUMBIA — When Connie McClellan walked onto her front lawn in Oakland Manor on the night of Sept. 27, 2006, the sight spread out before her was, “just magnificent.” Up the hill near the park just east of her home, Connie could see police flashers blocking the street and a trickle of candlelight, marching single file, advancing slowly towards her down the north side of the sidewalk.
“It was like the saints were marching,” Connie says, choking up. “It was just, oh my gosh, it was just so awesome. It was such a moving event.”
The candlelight vigil, which brought some 150 friends, family and neighbors to Connie’s front lawn, was held in honor of her son, three-time Purple Heart recipient Lance Cpl. John McClellan, who had been shot through the head the previous night by a sniper in Iraq.
The call she received was every mother’s worst nightmare, but for Connie it wasn’t the first time she’d received such a call. Just seven months before, she had received two similar calls after John had been shot twice in the same arm within the span of a week during his first deployment to Afghanistan.
For Connie, faith is not simply an abstract concept, something to be embraced only over family meals and in church on Easter Sunday. For her, faith is not a come-and-go attitude, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. For Connie, faith is a badge of honor, and a few minutes into a recounting of her story, it’s easy to understand why.
Diane Oerly, president of the neighborhood association, met Connie soon after moving in 19 years ago. Oerly says that while the vigil was beautiful, she was more impressed by Connie’s resoluteness.
“The thing that really blew me away, not only at the vigil but continually, has been how full of faith Connie has been,” Oerly says. “I mean, I never saw a hint of doubt ... she just always seemed completely confident that it was going to be fine, that John was going to be fine. She was just amazingly full of faith.”
Indeed, Connie’s faith seems to have been well-founded. When she first learned of her son’s injuries, doctors told her that if he survived the brain swelling, he would likely never be the same again. After the candlelight vigil however, Connie received yet another phone call from her son’s doctor. “We got the phone call that he had done a 180,” Connie says. “The doctor was like, ‘I don’t know if I was misreading this report last night or what, but I’ve got some really good news for you,’ and he was responding positively to every test that they were giving him.”
While the vigil was comprised of family, friends and people from all over Columbia, many of those who attended lived right in Oakland Manor. This sense of community is not surprising, since when John was growing up six of his best friends lived within a five-house radius of the McClellans’, and many of those families still live there. “We were a very tight community,” Connie says, one that, although it’s changed somewhat in the past 25 years, still comes together anytime one of its residents needs something.
Despite the dire predictions made by doctors that John would likely spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state after his injury, today he is dealing only with short-term memory issues and hearing loss in his left ear, something for which Connie is eternally grateful considering the extent of his injuries.
“We attribute everything that has happened to him to God’s protection ... to us it was just a sample of how angels really are protecting him after that is what we had prayed for, and that’s what we prayed for from the minute he was deployed,” she says.
Today, John lives in a house in Vanderveen Subdivision with two of his best friends from childhood, just a half-mile from where he grew up, and has aspirations of becoming a personal trainer. “He’s doing amazing, just amazing. I look at him, and I just marvel,” Connie whispers in an awe-inspired voice. “I do, I look at him and I just think, ‘I cannot believe what God has done for you.’ Twenty-four miracles, one at a time, is what has occurred here ... it’s just unbelievable.”