MEMBER PRESS: PASO ROBLES WINE COUNTRY ALLIANCE MEMBER PRESS
DECORATED VETERAN: VIETNAM WAR HERO WAS A LIFESAVER;
Grapes, Not Wrath Local Vintner Plans to Open Winery
By Michaela Baltasar
Published: Friday, May 7, 2004
One would never guess Templeton vintner Michael McClean is a war hero.
The introspective 56-year-old would rather talk about his plans to open a winery -- which he hopes to call Black Dog Syrah -- than the 15 medals he received for heroism and service during the Vietnam War.
"I'm very removed from that," he said. "It's like talking about another person."
But McClean is one of the most decorated soldiers to serve in the Army's 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division during its three years in Vietnam.
About 3,500 men served in that battalion. Of those, only 10 were ever awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, given for valor above and beyond the call of duty. Of those, only five lived through the combat that earned them the medal.
McClean was one.
"He was crazy," said 1st Lt. John Depko, who led McClean's platoon. "Every company has one guy who's crazy, and that was Mike."
Depko now works for the Orange County District Attorney's Office.
"We'd be walking through the jungle, and they'd open up on you," Depko said, referring to Viet Cong soldiers. "Everyone wanted to find cover, but Mike would charge the goddamn fire. He saved my life and many other guys."
McClean does not let on to acting with such bravery.
Rather, he said it took him 30 years to come to terms with his experience. McClean said he still deals with it on a daily basis. The war in Iraq, he said, is no different.
"It's the same old stuff," McClean said. "The reality is that no one understands war. People don't really want to know what we did -- they don't have the stomach for it. All you can do is get on with your life."
A job to do
McClean, who grew up in Pasadena, was something of a rebel in his younger years. He raced hot rods and cruised Colorado Boulevard at night. He never finished high school.
"I was a phenomenal street racer," he laughed.
But he also worked, helping his parents in their store, the Grand Pacific Meat Co.
In December 1967, McClean came home from work to find a brown envelope addressed to him. He had been drafted. He was 19.
McClean didn't know much about Vietnam when he was asked to fight, and his parents were "unemotional" about it, he said. Many young men from the neighborhood were being called into service, so his family accepted it. It was just something that had to be done, he said.
"When you're that young, you don't have a lot of opinions," McClean said. "We were kind of proud -- wanted to go off and fight communism and all of that silly stuff."
In the summer of 1968, McClean was sent to Saigon to start his year of service.
"It was so foreign," he said. "They were taking these homespun local boys and throwing them into the other side of the world. The humidity, the smells were different -- I felt like I was in Oz."
Becoming the Cowboy
That job soon involved highly dangerous reconnaissance missions. McClean recalled being chosen from a field of 300 men to be one of three "volunteers" to go on such a mission.
"Someone told me recon basically means you're dead," McClean said. "You're the first in and the last out -- you're like bait. I saw a lot of good boys die."
The recon squad was made up of men who had much more combat experience than McClean.
"Warriors, not soldiers," he recalled. "Men with tattoos. I was 140 pounds and 6-foot-2. Broomstick thin."
But he won their respect. They nicknamed him "Cowboy" after he ran into enemy fire to rescue a wide-brimmed bush hat he had bought to keep his ears from getting sunburned.
"I knew my ears were going to fry, so I turned around and went after it," McClean said. "My sergeant said, 'That's one crazy cowboy,' and the name stuck."
The craziness didn't stop there. He went on to volunteer for the longest patrols and worst missions. He didn't know why -- he just felt it was his duty.
"When people look up to you," he said, "they expect you to take control."
Depko recalled the night the platoon was told to keep the last bridge in the Mekong Delta from being blown up. That was also the night McClean earned the Distinguished Service Cross.
It was February 1969. The men were sitting in a circle on a hill, he said. It was 1 a.m. Just as they started to doze off, they were hit with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Within 60 seconds, I had two dead and 11 wounded out of 30 guys," Depko said. "My radio operators were killed, and I'm wounded, crawling around with shrapnel in my leg."
Then Depko saw McClean. He was silhouetted against the moonlight, exposing his entire upper body.
"Everyone was eating dirt, but he starts popping grenades on these people," Depko said. "He single-handedly stops the fire. At that moment, the bridge blows up, so our mission's over and we have to get out. But Cowboy gets up and starts charging."
In addition to the Distinguished Service Cross, McClean's medals include the Purple Heart, three Bronze Stars and the National Defense Service Medal.
But don't ask the former staff sergeant to show them off.
"One day I just threw it all in the Dumpster -- my pictures, medals," McClean said. "It was a way of leaving it behind. No one understood anyway."
All McClean has left is the Distinguished Service Cross -- only because it was in another room when he threw everything away. He keeps the cross in the visor of his car. Most of the time, he said, people don't even notice it.
Getting on with life
McClean wouldn't attribute his actions to bravery. Speaking slowly, carefully, he explained in one word: "Revenge."
"I was naive," he said. "When you see a fellow soldier die in your arms, you become full of hate, anger, revenge."
About six months into his service, he realized "we're never going to win, not the way it was in World War II," he said.
Nor was he treated like a hero when he returned from Vietnam.
"I was 21 years old and a nobody," McClean said. "... We were swept under the carpet, and everyone was against the war."
Almost ashamed to be a veteran, McClean buried everything. There was no debriefing, and his family didn't ask about the experience. McClean returned to work and became a recluse.
"You had to cover it up," he said. "Civilized people frowned on true warriors."
Today McClean has opened up. This chapter of his life includes attending a support group with about half a dozen local veterans.
It also includes trying to launch his new winery and continuing to work his 15-acre vineyard in Templeton, where his family moved 12 years ago after reading a Los Angeles Times story that characterized the area as a pristine Napa.
But mostly, it's just paying attention to the details of everyday life.
"I live each day as fully as I can," McClean said. "I lost a lot of years, so I appreciate where I am."
North County Editor Raven J. Railey contributed to this story.
Born: June 23, 1947
Family: Lives with wife, Judy McClean, and daughter, Kelly McClean in Templeton; son Steven McClean lives in Hollywood
Education: Attended John Muir High School in Pasadena
Hobbies: Muscle cars and his 15-acre vineyard Recently read: "Watchers" by Dean Koontz Favorite food: Ahi tuna Favorite Website: www.hemmings.com
Favorite music: Rolling Stones, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London"
Philosophy: "Be the best person you can be one day at a time, and never do harm to another person because karma will get you."
Michael McClean is owner of Barking Dog Vineyard (Now McClean Vineyards) near Templeton, CA.