July 8th, 2010
08:23 PM ET

A new war widow's wedding dress

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/01/06/ptsd.purple.heart/art.purple.heart.gi.jpg caption="McGarrah’s awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terror Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, the NATO Medal and the Parachutist's badge."]

The first time Emily McGarrah wore the dress her mother picked out was on May 7 when she hurriedly married U.S. Army Spec. Clayton D. McGarrah while he was home on leave.

She wore it again this week as his body arrived at Dover AFB, Del., from Afghanistan.

I read the casualty notices from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sent by the Department of Defense. Some days there is one, some days more; less often there are none.

The death of a soldier on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, caught my attention. The Defense Dept. said that McGarrah, 20, of Harrison, Ark., died “at Arghandab, Afghanistan, of injuries sustained when insurgents attacked his unit using an improvised explosive device and rocket-propelled grenade fire.” Looking at a map I found Arghandab just northwest of Kandahar, a major city in south-central Afghanistan.

I read about McGarrah, who was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. Local newspapers told the story of Clayton and Emily, who hailed from Harrison, Ark., population 13,100, in the northwest of the state.

From the Fayetteville Observer, the newspaper that covers Ft. Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne, I learned that Clayton McGarrah graduated from Harrison High School in 2006 and had taken college classes and worked as a roofer before enlisting last September.  "He wanted something more for himself. He knew he wasn't a roofer, so to speak," one of his sisters, Elaine Hansen, was quoted in the Observer. McGarrah did his airborne training at Ft. Benning, Ga., and reported to Ft. Bragg in April.

From reporter Dwain Lair of the Harrison Daily Times I learned about the romance of Clayton McGarrah and Emily O’Brien. Barely days after becoming a widow, Emily told Lair that her husband had “died doing exactly what he wanted to do. He had no regrets. He had everything he wanted … married and in the military. . . And of all days to die on … he was so patriotic.”

Emily O’Brien and Clayton McGarrah began dating at age 13. He wanted to marry when she turned 15. Like many teenage romances, they were on-off-on-off and then finally on. He came home from Ft. Bragg on Mother’s Day weekend and they were married at the courthouse. The dress Emily’s mother bought was similar to the one she wore when marrying Emily’s father. Clayton was scheduled to ship out May 19, so Emily returned to Ft. Bragg with her new husband. Another soldier took McGarrah’s slot, allowing the newlyweds to “spend a lot of time together,” Emily said. Clayton deployed to Afghanistan in June.

Emily told how difficult she found being the wife of a soldier deployed in harm’s way: "I had horrible nightmares every night since Clay left. He called me Saturday night, hours before any of it happened. He sounded so tired. I kept asking him, What is wrong? He replied that he was fine, just tired. He hadn't slept in 2 1/2 days and had to go on patrol in a few hours. I said, `That's not safe.' He said, That's what I have to do.’”

Emily was informed of Clayton’s death by a sergeant major and a chaplain who came to the hospital in Harrison where she worked as a nurse’s aide. "He was definitely about his family," his sister Elizabeth, said. "He had a big heart. Anybody that knew him loved him. He was all about his wife. He wanted to spend the rest of his life being a family man with her after being in the Army."

"Clayton D. McGarrah was a bright young man with a promising future in the Army," Capt. David Christmas, McGarrah's commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement. "He had not been with us more than a week, but was already stepping up as a rifleman to the demanding task in a harsh combat environment."

McGarrah’s awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terror Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, the NATO Medal and the Parachutist's badge.

McGarrah wanted to serve his country and made the ultimate sacrifice that war too often demands. So did Emily.

Filed under: David Schechter
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. George Merrifield

    Clay's grandmother is one of my closest friends. I'm so torn between gratitude and respect for our troops and disbelief and frustration for what I feel is a senseless endeavor. What good or stability is going to come forth from this effort? Are there citizens that really think we are making the world a safer place? Meanwhile, another family has lost one of theirs. I'm appalled and grieved.

    July 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  2. Dee w.

    I believe Emily worked at Skaggs Hospital in Branson, not NARMC in Harrison as stated above.

    July 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm |
  3. RIP Clay

    Clay will be missed in Harrison Ar., we will bury him tomorrow. We love our fallen soldier and thank him for our freedom.

    July 13, 2010 at 11:18 am |
  4. Susan Watson

    Clayton is my friend's grandson. When she told me that Clayton had been killed on July 4 the first thing I thought about was that I had heard on the news either July 4 or 5th "one soldier was killed in Afghanistan on the 4th of July". I thought to myself "thank God only one". It was Clayton. My brother was killed in Vietnam in 1970 so I know of the pain, sorrow and conflicted feelings these deaths bring. I just wish everyone would stop and listen when these announcements are made on the news. If they would pay more attention to honoring those who have given their lives doing what their country has asked them to do than Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears and where Lebron James is going, it would at least let the families of KIA's know that they really care.

    July 9, 2010 at 8:13 am |
  5. Alex Valiao (Fresh Meadows, NY)

    War is always a sad ending for everyone. People's lives are lost in each side and there is no turning back. Tears will drop in the soil, blood will paint the ground, and sweat will mars one's face without any chance of getting them back. Each sacrifice is like giving a part of your life without any expectations. I hope our elected officials will learn the gravity of their decisions. Each life counts not only of the Americans but from innocents around the world. At the end of the day, peace is the best thing that a man can give to another. There are times I wonder if simply leaving Afghanistan is the best way. But come to think of it, extending the war to have a better transition than leaving them high and dry for the 2nd time around is a more palatable choice. A salute to our military and their families. I am sorry for their grief and loss.

    July 8, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    My sincere condolences to Emily and Clayton's family and my thanks for their son's service in defending this country and our freedoms. Reading about Clayton I could not help but think of how brave he must have been and what a wonderful life he was leading and had planned for his and Emily's future. Clayton gave it all – made the ultimate sacrifice. One cannot but feel humbled reading about him.

    July 8, 2010 at 9:26 pm |

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