When Jon McClelland was growing up in Gainesville, he would play "army" and think to himself that once he grew up, he would be a real army man.
Now 21, Spc. McClelland recently returned from a nine-month tour in Iraq with the Army National Guard.
This soldier’s childhood dream turned into a reality when he became a military policeman stationed near Umm Qasr, Iraq, at Camp Bucca, a compound that held more than 1,000 detainees.
McClelland, a 2006 graduate of Chestatee High School, initially decided to go into the service as a way to attend college. After talking with a Navy recruiter who told him he might have to move to another state, McClelland went to the National Guard, which offered the college tuition aid he wanted without having to relocate.
"Gainesville is my home," McClelland said. "I basically grew up in Gainesville; I’ve been here since I was 6 years old. I like Gainesville too much to move."
Though McClelland didn’t have to move to another state, he was told in November 2007 that he would go to Iraq that December.
"At first, I was like, ‘cool, this is going to be great,’" he said. "And then about a day happened, and I was like, ‘oh man, I’m about to die — this isn’t going to be good.’"
But McClelland eventually "ended up relaxing."
"I went to the unit that I would be deploying with, and I saw who I would be with, and I was like, ‘You know what? These guys aren’t bad.’"
Many of the men in his unit were veterans, making McClelland feel more comfortable knowing that he would be working with people who had been overseas before and knew what was happening there.
"I knew that if I followed behind them, I would be good," he said.
While stationed in Iraq, McClelland had some unique experiences, good and bad.
For instance, McClelland was once threatened by one Iraqi man who said he was going to stab him.
"He nicked me with a toothbrush," McClelland said with a laugh. "He had a toothbrush in his hand and it was sharpened a little, and he just barely got me."
Despite the toothbrush incident, McClelland is amazed by the progress he saw in the detainees’ attitudes toward Americans.
"When I first went there, the guys didn’t really like us," he said. "They got along with us, and they didn’t really cause any problems, but they weren’t sitting there having conversations with us. Then, as time went on, they started to tell us a little more and trust us because we treated them like people."
McClelland was able to watch the Iraqi people learn different things, especially new ideas about religion.
"It’s amazing to see how they started with the Quran, and right before I left, I had a couple detainees who were reading the Bible," he said.
McClelland actually saw some detainees comparing the Quran and the Bible. He believes they could see that the documents actually do coincide with each other.
"I could also tell that those who were reading the Bible actually became less hostile," he said.
The Iraqis became so used to McClelland that they would come to him if they needed or wanted something.
"Basically they came to me for everything," said McClelland. "We gave them movies, ping-pong, chess and checkers, anything that we could to keep their mind off of making shanks or finding ways to escape."
McClelland believes that it was because of that generosity that his unit never had problems with escapees.
Along with games, the compound also had a library for the Iraqi detainees.
"It was one of the things that they liked the most," said McClelland. "If we gave them 10 minutes in the library, it would stretch out to about an hour because they would be like, ‘Please! Please! Five more minutes!’"
"At that point, once you see the smiles on their faces, you know that you are really doing something."
Although this was gratifying for McClelland, it was very hard for him to be away from his family and friends for so long.
"It’s definitely a different feeling when you know you are 7,045 miles away," he said. "You want to go out and do things like go to Wal-Mart and buy that cool little gadget that you saw on the Internet or go to the mall, but you can’t."
Even though it has been a difficult nine months, the National Guard has taught McClelland many life lessons.
"It’s taught me to be loyal, honest and brave and basically take one day at a time, do what you gotta do, get done with it, and move on to the next thing," McClelland said.
McClelland initially was told that the soldiers from his compound would leave Iraq around Dec. 5, but they didn’t give the soldiers an exact date until Dec. 10. McClelland then was told that he would head to Kuwait in seven days, which started his journey back home.
But of course, the time change was an issue.
"Christmas Eve was the longest Christmas Eve of my entire life," he said. "It was 32 hours long because of the different time changes."
Fortunately, McClelland did make it home in time for Christmas.
"We stepped off the plane and everyone’s face was lit up because we knew it was over," he said. "To know that we were in Georgia, on Georgia soil, made us very happy."
At 4:30 a.m. Christmas morning, the soldiers were released to their families to celebrate the holiday.
"That was one of the most memorable Christmases that I will ever have," said McClelland.
Being back home meant that McClelland finally could do some simple things that he hasn’t been able to do in nine months.
"When I got my car back, I went straight to Burger King and got a hamburger, and then another day I went to Chick-fil-A, because what’s more American than Chick-fil-A?" he said.
McClelland now works at Fieldale Farms on Queen City Parkway, and he plans on going to college to become a history teacher. He currently does not know when or if he will be reassigned to Iraq.
"One thing that I learned while being over there was that I can teach," said McClelland. "I taught our speaker how to speak in English clearly."
Every compound has an Iraqi speaker who serves as a translator for the soldiers. McClelland worked with his compound’s speaker, and before he left Iraq, the speaker was able to talk in clear and complete sentences.
"He could tell me what he was thinking, what he was feeling or what was going on in the compound to an exact," McClelland said.
Even though he is home now, McClelland said that being able to go to Iraq was one of the best experiences of his life.
"The past nine months in Iraq made me thankful that I live in a country that is free, and I would be proud to die on the battlefield to defend its freedom," said McClelland.
"I have seen the people in the detainee camp that have turned from anti-American to pro-American, and it has made me proud of the work that is done there."