Carroll Clatterbaugh should be dead.
At age 21, he should have become a tragic statistic – casualty No. 58,210 of the war in Vietnam.
“It was January 31, 1969,” recalled the now 67-year-old Carroll, the events of that day forever burned into his mind. “We had formed a circle on the Batangan Peninsula and were forcing the enemy back to the beaches. That’s when we realized we had walked into a minefield. I thought that was it.”
But somehow, some way, Carroll survived. He survived the first land mine explosion that took the life of a fellow Marine and riddled Carroll’s legs with shrapnel. He survived running back into the firefight twice to carry his wounded brothers 60 yards to the rescue helicopter. It was the second mine blast an hour later that almost got him. The one that exploded six feet from him. The one that lodged searing pieces of metal into the entire right side of his face, chest, arms and legs. Fragments still remain, wrapped in scar tissue and painful memories. The one that left him bleeding out within an inch of his life, robbed him of his vision in his right eye and kept him in a Tokyo hospital for six months.
“Four of the men I stood side by side with died during that operation and 17 were injured badly,” he said solemnly. “The Lord saved me for something and I will never take that for granted.”
War has a way of changing a person. For Carroll, that was both an emotional and physical transformation.
“I still have this picture I took of a boy carrying his little brother on his back with no clothes or no shoes. Man, it just choked me up as he passed by. They were just like you and me. Wanting to farm and live life. These villagers were in the middle of politics. It made me realize I wasn’t just there for the folks back home but for all those families there too.”
“It took about two years to adjust to the loss of my right eye,” said Carroll. “Your depth perception is completely gone. I’d reach for a cup and I’d knock the juice over before I ever thought I was there.”
So Carroll adapted. He taught himself to lightly touch things with his pinky fingers before grabbing anything. He started reading in shorter bursts to avoid headaches, and he even figured out how to back up his truck without hitting anything.
“That was a challenge,” chuckled Carroll. “But over time, it all just becomes the norm.”
While many Vietnam veterans had trouble with employment after returning home, Carroll was able to find work in research and development in his birth state of Virginia, and in construction in Tennessee. Without the adrenaline intrinsically embedded in the Marine Corps to keep him engaged, Carroll took up karate and competed in tournaments. Then came something that would satisfy his need for adventure and excitement for the rest of his life – a woman by the name of Marie Christine Turberville.
“She was and still is breathtaking,” he gushed. “She’s so alive and beautiful. It was impossible not to fall for her.”
Marie made Carroll’s heart sing instantly. But it wasn’t Carroll’s heart that Marie noticed first.
“She fell in love with my feet,” beamed Carroll as his slow southern drawl was overtaken with sudden pride. “I tell you, I could dance. My specialty was a slow dance with a twist. She got my feet and the rest of me too.”
Carroll and Marie have been cutting the rug of life together ever since. They married and even 32 years after their wedding, Carroll still calls her his bride. The two packed up and put down roots in Monroeville, Alabama, where Carroll was hired as a technician at Alabama River Cellulose. He worked his way up in the Koch company over the last 28 years to electrical and instrumentation shift worker, crew leader and now as an engineering assistant.
“I’m 67 [years old]. You’ve got to love what you do to work this long,” said Carroll. “You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and who you work with. So many things from my time in the Marines coincide with real life. When you were called to stand up and charge, everyone stood up. That’s what good businesses do too. We’re a team. There’s trust here.”
Monroeville, the quiet town of 6,500 people that was birthplace of Harper Lee and childhood home of Truman Capote, is a far cry from the bloodstained battlefields of Southeast Asia. But those two worlds collided on Veterans Day, 2015.
“After I was released from the Tokyo hospital, I went back to America,” said Carroll. “There wasn’t a parade. People weren’t friendly to Vietnam vets. They were standoffish and afraid.”
Forty-six years later, Carroll finally got the soldier’s welcome he and all those who served in Vietnam deserved. On November 11, Carroll was named Monroeville’s Veteran of the Year for the sacrifices he made for the United States. His medals, the Purple Heart he received shortly after serving, and the eight additional medals he received 40 years later from both the U.S. and Republic of Vietnam, sat in a shadow box on the stage while the town that he now calls home listened intently to the accolades of the hero standing before them.
Being presented to the Veteran of the Year ceremony attendees, Carroll’s awards and decorations serve as a small visual representation of his bravery and humanitarian efforts.
Carroll shares his honor with his family including granddaughters Ashley (L) and Hailey (R).
Shots echo through the Alabama woodlands as veterans aim to honor all those who served with a 21-gun salute.
A lone bugler prepares to play “Taps” in remembrance of all military men and women who have passed.
Inseparable since the moment they met, the newly-honored Veteran of the Year and his adoring bride walk hand in hand once again, ready to live life like they always have – to the fullest.
“I am so very humbled, very honored and very proud to be a part of the force that protects the USA and other countries from harm,” said Carroll after the ceremony. “I am a Marine for life. There are so many that served and I’m only one small part of what we call America.”
Carroll still wonders why he survived that fateful January day in Vietnam. But seeing the way Marie looks at him; the way his four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild admire him; the way the three soldiers he carried to safety appreciate him and the way all in attendance at Veterans Park honored him, it’s easy to see that it wasn’t just Carroll’s life that was saved that day.
Welcome to Veterans Day in Monroeville, The Literary Capital of Alabama.