Army Sgt. Matthew Q. McClintock’s great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and cousin all donned the uniform. They served in every major U.S. conflict from World War II to Operation Desert Storm.
And yet Sgt. McClintock’s service was, for his family, shockingly different. His was the descendent of generations of Navy veterans, but McClintock wanted to be an Army Green Beret. He wanted to fight in a service of his choosing in the wars of his generation.
“He had a plan. So I gave him my blessing. And I have been proud of him my whole life,” his father, George McClintock, a Navy veteran of the first Iraq war, told The Daily Beast.
McClintock, 30, of Albuquerque, N.M., died Jan. 5 in Marja, Afghanistan. He was killed while supporting Afghan forces trying to reclaim and clear a part of that village from the Taliban. Two other U.S. troops were injured.
McClintock was part of the Washington National Guard, assigned to the 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Buckley, Wash. He also was an active-duty veteran, having joined the military in 2006 and served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He was one month shy of finishing his latest deployment. He leaves behind a wife of three years and 3-month-old son, Declan, whose photos dominate his father’s Facebook page.
Sgt. McClintock was such a huge Star Wars fan that he built a wooden crib for his son inspired by the movie series’ TIE fighters, friends remembered.
His wife, Alexandra, posted a message on a GoFundMe page about her husband of three years. She also uploaded photos of him holding his infant son, immediately after his birth, wearing a baby camouflage onesie. She wrote, in part:
“Matthew’s greatest wish was to be a father, a husband, and a Green Beret. He got to do all of those things in his too short life. Declan will grow up knowing his father was the greatest man I’ve ever dreamed to know and a hero. I want to thank his teammates for doing everything they could to bring Matthew home to us.”
McClintock’s death marked the first combat death of the year in what is emerging as the latest war front in Afghanistan, one where the U.S.’s elite, furtive forces are battling along blurred frontlines.
Conventional U.S. forces are largely stationed inside their bases, where they train their Afghan counterparts. As such, they’re less likely to face direct threats from the Taliban. U.S. commandos, meanwhile, are tasked with leaving the base to fight alongside their nascent partners.
Such special operations forces, roughly 3,000 in number in Afghanistan, are supposed to stay just behind Afghan front lines, in what are called “over watch” positions. But in urban centers like Marja, the over watch position could be just a building away.
While the U.S. military did not provide details of Marja’s firefight, it appeared the Taliban were near the building the Afghan security forces hoped to clear—and began attacking both the Afghan forces and the U.S. troops there to support the local troops.
Such battles are both quick—with decisive moments happening in a flash—and excruciating long. This fight between coalition and Taliban forces lasted nearly 20 hours. But for McClintock, “they tell me it happened very quickly,” his father explained.
Two Army HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters attempted to rescue the troops. One was waved off; the other was damaged while landing and abandoned for more than a day.
Such increased dependency on special operations forces has made it increasingly difficult to see how the U.S. is conducting its latest war against the Taliban. Often, U.S. officials do not acknowledge that troops are deployed in Taliban hot spots until the officials have to—because of casualties. Indeed, the U.S. military has refused to say where its specialized forces are deployed or how often they conduct such missions, citing operational security.
Some members of the special operations forces community reportedly complained that it took far too long for air support to reach the troops. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) told The Washington Post that the “rules of engagement”—the guidelines for troops’ actions—are “so restrictive that when a unit is pinned down, available assets are not given the latitude to respond in a timely manner, and it appears in this case that it cost lives.”
Zinke said an AC-130 gunship was nearby but was waved off because of fears of collateral damage, suggesting the U.S. military was wary of using air power after its forces accidentally killed 22 people during an October airstrike at a Doctors Without Borders Hospital.
As the Taliban moves more onto urban Afghan centers in its push to reclaim territory that has fallen out of its hands since the U.S. invasion 14 years ago, U.S. officials fear that troops will increasingly be in danger in what was supposed to be a waning war. The U.S. plans to withdraw the bulk of its 9,800 troops by the end of this year.
McClintock’s father did not know the details of his son’s mission. He said he had a hard time extracting details from his son—a problem he concedes he may have created.
“There were certain things I would ask, and he would give me the ‘I could tell you but I would have to kill you stare’ that I used to give him,” his father remembered.
Instead, the elder McClintock, 59, of Jacksonville, Fla., talked to his son about their shared love of John Wayne and how his son hoped to find a way to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens while deployed.
After Sgt. McClintock left active duty, he earned his associate degree near his father’s home and even joined the Florida National Guard. But a former Green Beret comrade called him and said the Washington National Guard was doing interesting things, and he should join them. He did last year and was deployed shortly afterward.
“He was always challenging himself. The boy never stopped,” his father remembered. “He was very inquisitive, dedicated, and motivated.”
The two McClintocks spoke around Christmas—man to man, sailor to soldier, father to son. They will never have another conversation.