Clifford Wooldridge: an American hero living among us
By Peg Eastman
Frank Hanes, Marianna MacIntyre, Staff Sergeant Clifford Wooldridge, Margaret Von Werssowetz and Peg Eastman, all of whom participated in this interview. Image provided by Marianna MacIntyre.
In October, thanks to Rorie Cartier, the new executive director of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum, and Susan Marlowe, Patriots Point Development Authority board member who chairs the Education and Museums Committee, interview space was provided aboard the Yorktown aircraft carrier for volunteers from The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America to interview veterans for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. The project’s goal is to show the realities of war and military service of veterans from the First World War through the present day. Medal of Honor recipient Major General James Livingston and Rear Admiral James Flatley were among those who participated in the inaugural interviews.
The following week, there was another VIP interview for Cliff Wooldridge, a retired Marine staff sergeant whom General Livingston met while exercising at the gym. He discovered that Wooldridge had been awarded the Navy Cross while attached to Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment serving in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. His actions there were so heroic that Wooldridge even gained the colorful sobriquet “Badass.”
Upon hearing the details of Wooldridge’s courageous acts and researching the matter further, General Livingston has launched an effort to have the award upgraded from a Navy Cross (the Marine Corps’ second-highest honor) to a Medal of Honor. As a recipient himself, General Livingston knows the painstaking research and long process involved in such an effort but is determined to see it through.
The story of Staff Sergeant Wooldridge begins in his hometown of Port Angeles, Washington. After graduating from high school, he earned a diesel mechanics certificate at Wyoming Technical Institute in Laramie. He returned to Port Angeles and worked as a mechanic for a logging company while the news was filled with combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wanting to be part of something bigger than himself, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and attended boot camp at the recruit depot in San Diego. Instead of becoming a mechanic, he insisted upon infantry training at Camp Pendleton and, upon completing it, received orders to the Third Battalion Seventh Marines in Twentynine Palms, California. The following year he was deployed to Al Anbar Province, Iraq, where he served a year before returning stateside.
In March 2010, Wooldridge was deployed to Afghanistan, serving as vehicle commander in support of Operation Enduring Freedom during the spring offensive. It was a tough duty. The land was inhospitable, living conditions were primitive and a fierce tribal culture had already vanquished both the mighty British Empire and a more recent Russian invasion.
Wooldridge arrived in the season when poppies, one of the Taliban’s major sources of income, are harvested. Taliban fighters zealously protected their crops, and Wooldridge’s team experienced daily attacks, made the worse by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) buried in the terrain they patrolled.
On June 17, while under fire, Wooldridge and several others seized a key hill for observation. Nearby, two Anti-Armor platoons were pinned down by intense machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire. As the platoons were unable to locate the enemy’s position, Wooldridge exposed himself to fire and was able to talk his platoon sergeant onto the hill to direct an air strike. By decimating the enemy machine gun position, four enemy fighters were killed and the others were forced to flee. Marine lives were saved that day, and the two platoons were able to continue their mission.
The next day, Corporal Wooldridge and his squad again encountered intense and accurate machine gun fire. The following description of events is taken from Wooldridge’s Navy Cross citation:
“Corporal Wooldridge and his squad dismounted and maneuvered on the suspected enemy location. Spotting a group of 15 enemy fighters preparing an ambush, Corporal Wooldridge led one of his fire teams across open ground to flank the enemy, killing or wounding at least eight and forcing the rest to scatter. [Wooldridge] held security alone to cover his fire team’s withdrawal …”
Then Wooldridge heard voices close to his position and investigated, coming face to face with the remaining enemy fighters. At close range, he was able to kill several of them before his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon ran out of ammunition. Wooldridge took cover to reload, but before he could finish reloading, he saw the barrel of a machine gun appear from behind the wall. Wooldridge grabbed it and engaged the enemy hand to hand while his adversary was trying to pull the pin of a grenade and kill them both. Ultimately he was able to use the enemy’s gun to lethally strike him in the head. Wooldridge’s men reappeared shortly thereafter and were amazed to see the bloodied Marine standing among four fallen foes. (For a more detailed account see badassoftheweek.com/Clifford-wooldridge.)
In spite of imminent danger, before they returned to their platoon Wooldridge led his team from dead enemy fighter to dead enemy fighter, removing their radios, cell phones, weapons, ammunition and grenades to prevent the enemy from using them again. His citation for the Navy Cross stated that Wooldridge’s audacious and fearless actions thwarted an enemy ambush on his platoon and saved countless Marine lives without suffering a single casualty. Not only did he lead his team to victory but he “ambushed the ambush” according to Robert O. Work, undersecretary of the Navy, who presented Wooldridge with the Navy Cross in 2012.
Corporal Wooldridge was meritoriously promoted to the rank of sergeant for valor in combat and recommended for the Navy Cross. In October of that same year, his unit returned to Twentynine Palms. He later mentored hundreds of Marines as a close quarter battle instructor for Marine Corps Security Forces. In 2012, he was selected as the USO Marine of the Year.
In 2013, Wooldridge was meritoriously promoted to staff sergeant and was selected the Military Times Marine of the Year. He served as platoon sergeant for the Second Fleet Anti-Terrorism Team in Yorktown, Virginia, and was later deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Yokosuka, Japan, as a Quick Reaction Force against our nation’s terrorism threat.
In July of the following year, Wooldridge returned to Camp Pendleton, serving as an infantry platoon sergeant. During training he sustained injury and was medically retired in August 2016 at age 28.
“I enjoyed my time in the Marine Corps,” Wooldridge told the Marine Corps Times. “It’s had a huge impact on my life. I’m going to miss the men I’ve served with and miss being in the fight with them.” He said his time in the Corps made him appreciate life and not take it for granted.
Charleston is indeed fortunate to have Cliff Wooldridge living among us. We appreciate his service, patriotism and dedication to the United States Marine Corps. To support General Livingston’s endorsement for the Congressional Medal of Honor, we urge our readers to contact our congressional delegation: U.S. Representative Nancy Mace at (803) 212-6717, and Senators Lindsey Graham at (202) 224-5972 and Tim Scott at (864) 233-5366.
My appreciation to General Livingston for introducing this exceptional warrior to the Mercury and for supporting the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Any veteran who wishes to relate experiences for posterity in the Library of Congress database may contact Marianna MacIntyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.