Wounded Vietnam Vet Finds God’s Love in Pro Golfer’s Kindness

Wounded Vietnam Vet Finds God’s Love in Pro Golfer’s Kindness July 8, 2014

The following column was written by The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:

This is a story about a wounded Marine, ready to give up on life, and a visiting celebrity who convinced him otherwise—that God still had a job for him to do. It’s a perfect Christopher story, sent my way by a college classmate, and it’s ideal for retelling any time at all. But there’s a special reason for telling it somewhere around the Fourth of July. It reminds us all of the values on which this nation was founded, and why they remain fighting for even today.

The Marine was First Lt. Patrick Cleburne “Clebe” McClary, who had been gravely wounded in Vietnam in 1968. The wounds from the firefight were life-shattering: McClary lost his left arm and his left eye, and friends would have had trouble recognizing him. Psychological scars emerged, too, in the Japanese hospital to which he’d been evacuated.

“I’d given up,” McClary said later. “I wanted to die, and I’d have died right there if it hadn’t been for him.”

“Him” was Billy Casper, one of his era’s best golfers, who won an astonishing 51 PGA tour events in his career, and whose three Major wins would include the 1970 Masters. Touring Japan, he took time to visit some Americans who were wounded in Vietnam.

When he approached McClary that day, a doctor tried to steer him away, but Casper recalls that something led him on. McClary will never forget the words he spoke.

“He put his arm around me, leaned in, and said. ‘God could use you today. Don’t give up,’” the Marine remembered. “Then he thanked me for what I had done for my country and said, ‘God bless you.’”

Casper’s words worked their magic. McClary found the resolve to fight back, surviving an incredible 41 surgeries, and was eager to see what God had in store for him. After settling down in his native South Carolina, he went on to a career as a motivational speaker, eventually inspiring audiences in all 50 states. He averaged 200 appearances a year, and always left his listeners with an upbeat message.

But McClary’s story doesn’t end there. Over the years, he realized how much Casper’s words had meant to him—how they had saved his life in a very real sense. And so last year he asked a neighbor if he knew Casper, and could set up a meeting. The neighbor was Jay Haas, an excellent golfer himself with nine PGA wins (and whose son, Bill, is a young star on the tour today). Sure thing, Haas answered, and the get-together was set up in Augusta, Ga. —at the Masters.

And so it came to pass, on April 8 of this year. McClary, now 72, and Casper, who was 82 at the time, hadn’t seen each other since that day in 1968, but the years simply melted away in a sea of tears.

“I bet we hugged each other and couldn’t let go for five minutes,” McClary said. “People were walking by I’m sure thinking, ‘What’s the matter with these two old guys?’ I had no idea he would remember, but he recalled me and all the details about it like it was yesterday. Nobody paid him to come to the hospital that day. He just came in because he cared.”

So that’s the story: a life saved because God had a plan. It’s a story for anytime, but I think it has special value at this time of the year. Around the Fourth of July.

(Photo via David Wetzel)

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