Among the rows of white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery is one dated Dec. 6, 2006, bearing a distinctive six-word motto: “Be bold. Be brief. Be gone.”
It belongs to Marine Maj. Megan McClung, the highest-ranking female Marine officer to die in the Iraq War and the first female U.S. Naval Academy graduate ever to be killed in action.
Those six words were the instructions McClung gave to fellow public affairs officers for how to deal with the press. But it also was how McClung lived her 34 years, as military author Tom Sileo describes in a recent biography of the Marine.
Coming across those words in Arlington in 2010 led Sileo ― author of “Brothers Forever,” about Naval Academy graduates Travis Manion, a fallen Marine, and Brendan Looney, a fallen Navy SEAL, and “8 Seconds of Courage,” about immigrant and Medal of Honor recipient Flo Groberg ― to Google McClung and eventually get in touch with her now-late father, a Marine veteran who served during Vietnam.
After more than a decade of corresponding with McClung’s family, friends and colleagues, Sileo completed “Be Bold: How a Marine Corps Hero Broke Barriers for Women at War,” published by Fidelis Publishing on Nov. 11, 2022.
“Megan had an awareness of the fact that a few things might be a little harder for her because she was a woman, but it wasn’t part of her daily existence,” Sileo told Marine Corps Times. “I got that from a lot of people who knew her. It was just, ‘I’m going to work as hard as I need to work, and I’m never going to make excuses, and I’m never going to ask for any special privileges.”
McClung “stood a mere 5 feet 4 inches and weighed only 125 pounds, but her spirit was a giant and had been since childhood,” Mike Barber of the Seattle Post-Intelligence wrote after her death.
When the signup sheet for her high school’s weightlifting class said, “No girls allowed,” McClung convinced the school board to let her in, and held her own with the boys.
When she didn’t get into the Naval Academy the first time she applied, she spent a year at Admiral Farragut Academy, a preparatory school, as part of its first class of women and was accepted to the Naval Academy the second time around.
When her body could no longer support her training as a competitive college gymnast, she became a talented marathoner and triathlete.
And when her dreams of becoming a Navy fighter pilot were dashed because of air sickness, she threw her efforts into preparing to be a Marine officer and commissioned in 1995.
Risking her life
As a public affairs officer stationed at Cherry Point, North Carolina, McClung desperately wanted to deploy to Iraq to “go tell the real stories,” as she put it. Becoming a military contractor allowed her to do that, so she became one in 2004 and transitioned to the Reserve.
“For Megan, it wasn’t about spreading pro-war Pentagon propaganda, but helping ensure accurate and well-rounded reporting,” Sileo writes in “Be Bold.” “Yes, death and destruction were part of the story, but so were the humanity and hope Megan witnessed firsthand.”
In 2004, on a deployment to Iraq as a contractor, she wrote stories and escorted journalists in Baghdad. At one point, she survived a gunfire attack that enemy insurgents launched on her vehicle.
McClung went back on active duty in 2006 because she wanted her stories to reach a wider audience — an easier task as a Marine public affairs officer than as a contractor, according to “Be Bold.” In February 2006, she deployed again to Iraq, this time as an active-duty Marine.
On top of her responsibilities as a public affairs officer in Fallujah, Iraq, and later Ramadi, she completed an online master’s degree in criminal justice and remained an avid runner despite the desert heat. She even founded, directed and raced alongside 107 other runners in the Marine Corps Marathon–Forward, held in western Iraq on the same day as the popular race in Washington, D.C.
“Even her job wasn’t enough for her, being overseas and risking her life,” Sileo told Marine Corps Times. “She still wanted to do more, and, really, that’s what she did up to her final moments.”
Fellow Marines admired her enthusiasm, humor and leadership, Sileo reported. Several local tribal leaders grew to trust McClung personally. And journalists appreciated her careful planning and her dedication to getting them answers and access.
It was while McClung was escorting Newsweek journalists, who were in the vehicle in front of her, that an improvised explosive device detonated under her Humvee. The blast killed her and two soldiers in the vehicle.
McClung left a large imprint on the Marine Corps and beyond.
She has become a part of Corps and Naval Academy history, and there are a half-dozen awards and scholarships that bear her name, Sileo writes. In 2017, then-Commandant Gen. Robert Neller invoked her name during Senate testimony on a nude photo-sharing scandal in the Corps.
“How much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?” he said in an appeal to male Marines. “Was it enough when Maj. Megan McClung was killed by an IED in Ramadi?”
But “Be Bold” isn’t just about McClung’s legacy as a Marine. Drawing on recollections from her family, friends and colleagues, and on her own correspondence, it portrays her as a young woman who was generous to her loved ones and unstinting in pursuit of her goals.
In his first conversation with the Marine’s mother, Re McClung, Sileo told her, “I’m sorry that this tragedy occurred.”
“She jumped right in and said, ‘No, it’s not a tragedy because Megan died doing exactly what she wanted to be doing,’” Sileo recalled to Marine Corps Times. “She and Mr. McClung both expressed that they believe that if Megan had the opportunity to do it all over again that she would, despite the fact that she didn’t get to live out the rest of her life.”
Sileo, who has a young daughter with Down Syndrome, said that McClung’s determination in spite of obstacles has inspired him personally.
“I’m never going to let somebody tell my little daughter that she can’t do something just because she has Down Syndrome,” Sileo told Marine Corps Times. “I think that’s exactly the way Megan approached her life. Work hard. Do your absolute best.”
“And, like she said about the glass ceiling in the beginning of the book — she told her mom, ‘There’s only a glass ceiling if you can see it.’”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.