Staff Sgt. Cliff Wooldridge (Mike Morones / Staff)
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CHESAPEAKE, VA. — When Staff Sgt. Cliff Wooldridge arrived here in 2011 to serve as an instructor with Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, he was less than a year removed from beating a Taliban fighter to death in Afghanistan with his own machine gun.
The transition to a training environment wasn’t easy. Wooldridge had served as an anti-tank missileman in 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., as they pushed through a deployment in Helmand province in 2010. It included heavy combat in Musa Qala and Sangin districts, where insurgents were deeply entrenched.
Despite the difficult readjustment after arriving in Virginia, Wooldridge, then a sergeant, persevered, his colleagues say. He became an instructor with Marine Corps Security Force Training Company’s Close Quarter Battle School last year, volunteered with charities and showed such dedication to work that he was meritoriously promoted to staff sergeant.
He also received the Navy Cross in May 2012 for his heroism in Afghanistan in 2010. The award is second only to the Medal of Honor in recognition of combat valor.
For his leadership, heroism and quiet professionalism, Wooldridge, 25, is the 2013 Marine Corps Times Marine of the Year. He doesn’t think he deserves the award, he said, but he was touched that Marines in his chain of command nominated him for it.
“There are definitely a lot of people who deserve this award over me, but the mere fact that I was even put up for this was incredible,” Wooldridge said. “I’m very humbled.”
Wooldridge recently joined one of the Corps’ Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams as a platoon sergeant. He will serve as the senior enlisted leader in 5th Platoon, Bravo Company, out of Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, Va. The 50-man unit serves as a crisis-response force, performing U.S. embassy reinforcement, evacuation and other antiterrorism and security missions abroad as necessary.
Marines who work with Wooldridge say he has gone above and beyond to relate his experiences to junior Marines. He leads with a calm, cool demeanor that is rare in leaders with more experience, said his regiment’s commanding officer, Col. Darrin Denny.
“He has always taken a personal interest in knowing his students, and that the students he trains need to be ready to answer the nation’s call when called upon while deployed with the regiment’s Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams,” he said. “He always remains humble and carries himself with humility, grace and pride.”
Wooldridge, of Port Angeles, Wash., joined the Marine Corps in 2007. He was working as a diesel mechanic on logging equipment, but decided he wanted to try something else. He shipped out for boot camp within weeks, becoming an infantryman.
In 2010, as the U.S. was surging forces into southern Afghanistan, his battalion deployed to northern Helmand. As a corporal, he served as a vehicle commander for a Combined Anti-Armor Team, but the mission dictated that he and his Marines frequently dismount to find the Taliban.
On June 18, Wooldridge’s mounted patrol came under enemy fire in Musa Qala. His squad dismounted their vehicles and maneuvered on the enemy fighters, who were preparing an ambush. Wooldridge, armed with a 5.56mm M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, and the rest of his squad killed or wounded about eight insurgents, causing the rest to scatter.
As the Marines began to withdraw from the area, Wooldridge posted security. Overhearing voices, he rushed around the corner of a building and confronted two more fighters, according to his Navy Cross citation. He killed them both and crouched behind a wall to reload his empty weapon. Then an enemy machine gun barrel appeared around the wall.
“Without hesitation, he dropped his empty weapon and seized the machine gun barrel,” the Navy Cross citation states. “He overwhelmed the enemy fighter in hand-to-hand combat, killing him with several blows to the head with the enemy’s own machine gun.”
Wooldridge, who is 6-foot-2 and about 210 pounds, said he still grapples with memories from the deployment. He wears a bracelet on his wrist to memorialize Cpl. Claudio Patino, a friend and scout sniper with the battalion who was killed. Still, Wooldridge embraces his experiences.
“We had a rough deployment, but it’s war,” he said. “I think about that stuff all the time, but it helped mold me into the Marine I am now. The mistakes we made out there, I’m going to make damn sure those mistakes are never made again by the guys I train.”
'Legacy and traditions'
When Wooldridge arrived in Virginia, not everyone was thrilled. Fellow Marines, aware of his difficult deployment and fame within the Corps, were concerned he would be difficult to work with or get preferential treatment, said Gunnery Sgt. Todd Leahey, the staff noncommissioned officer in charge of the Close Quarter Battle School.
“But ... you find out he’s just a guy who has a lot of pride in being a Marine and wants to continue the legacy and traditions,” he said.
Wooldridge served as an instructor for the regiment’s basic security guard force, but his shift to teaching close-quarter skills allowed him to relate to students even more directly.
“They do the thing like, ‘That’s him! That’s him! That’s the guy!’” Staff Sgt. Jesse Reed, a team leader at the school, said of the students. “But ... he’s willing to talk to them. He’s very approachable about it.”
Wooldridge volunteered for several charities in the past year, but took special interest in organizations like Honored American Veterans Afield, which seeks to reintegrate combat veterans into society through hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. Spending time with wounded warriors, he said, is a reality check.
“I love helping out with the wounded warriors because plenty of my buddies are in the same spot,” he said. “I’ve seen how it could wreck somebody’s life.”
A young wounded warrior told him that drill instructors at boot camp tell “bedtime stories” about him to inspire others.
“Hearing that is just humbling,” Wooldridge said, “because these younger guys are going out there and fighting the fight.”
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