November 8, 2012

Navy turned life around for Blinn freshman

Blinn College freshman Daniel Clemons wears an entirely different uniform these days.

Where once he once wore the colors of a U.S. Navy Corpsman, today he steps to a locker at Blinn College and pulls on a blue Buccaneer football jersey. Each time, Clemons takes a moment to look at the photo of Lance Corporal David Raymond Baker taped to the inside of his locker. He remembers where he's come from, all that he's seen before his 30th birthday and remembers Oct. 20, 2009, the day Lance Corporal Baker stepped on an improvised explosive device and died.

He knows he has come a long way. He knows he still has much further to go.

 
 

'GOING DOWN THE WRONG PATH'

Growing up, there weren't many who saw Daniel Clemons as a young man who would save lives while serving his country overseas.

He was just 13 when his mother, Rebecca Charlene Roane, died after a two-year battle with cancer. In the years to follow, he would be passed around to nine different homes, staying with family, friends – anyone who would take him in. Six months after his mother's death, Clemons' cousins told him that the man he had grown up believing was his dad was not, in fact, his biological father.

"It makes you grow up faster," Clemons said. "I wasn't allowed to be a kid."

Shortly after his mother's death, Clemons brought a knife to school, landing him in juvenile detention with a fresh arrest record. He was twice expelled from the sixth grade for fighting, and at 16, he was arrested again for stealing the family car.

"When other kids were playing Pop Warner, I was breaking into houses and cars and doing what kids in my neighborhood did," Clemons said.

He dropped out of high school in 2002, returned briefly in 2003, and dropped out again.

"I was just going down the wrong path," Clemons said. "I was very heavy into drugs, thought I wanted to be a thug and didn't know who I was. I was definitely turning into a bad person, but I remember one day waking up and it was just like adults always tell you, one day you're going to wake up and reality is just going to hit you. Literally, I woke up one morning and the light switch clicked."

Clemons began calling friends, asking for advice to turn his life around. The first person to call him back was his best friend, Sergio Moriel.

Like Clemons, Moriel was a high school dropout, but by the time Clemons called seeking advice, Moriel had spent the previous two years in the Navy. Moriel told Clemons that he had nothing to lose by joining the military. Clemons agreed.

The first step required Clemons to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a three-hour test aimed at identifying a recruit's enlistment qualifications. Those without a high school diploma, like Clemons, needed a 50 on the test before they could enlist—a score only half of test takers achieve.

He took the test three times, scoring a 48 once, but he never made the 50 he needed. He was told he'd have to sit out six months before he could take the test again. Desperate to get out of Houston and his current lifestyle, Clemons took a job as an industrial plant technician, performing inspections and traveling to Georgia, Utah and Louisiana. After seven months, he had enough money to enroll at Phoenix Academy of The Woodlands, a private school that offered a high school diploma-level program.

Clemons bolted for the recruiter's office the day he got news he'd earned his high school diploma.

"I didn't even say hi to him," Clemons said. "He looked up at me with this expression as if to say, 'What are you doing here?' I put transcript on the desk and he said, 'That's what I'm talking about. Let's get this done.' He asked when I wanted to leave and I told him I needed to leave yesterday."

 

'APPRECIATIVE OF LIFE'

Clemons arrived for boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. in 2006.

"The day that I got off that bus at boot camp and that first person got in my face and started screaming and yelling, there was no fear of them," he said. "It was the fear that if I mess this up, I knew what was waiting for me back home. I knew the type of person I didn't want to be any more and that kept driving me every day."

After two months of boot camp, Clemons was sent to "A" school, where he received job-specific training related to being a Navy Corpsman. During his six-month stay, Clemons was required to take 13 exams related to his medical training. Of those 13, he was only allowed to fail two before his enrollment would be re-examined.

Within the first five tests, Clemons had three failures. He appealed to his commanding officer asking to remain in the program, writing a letter describing his life story and how much the opportunity to save lives in the Navy meant to him. That letter changed his life.

Clemons was granted a final opportunity, with the understanding that if he failed any of the final eight exams, he would be booted from the program and assigned to serve as an undesignated seaman. Though the final eight exams included the three most challenging tests in the training program, Clemons never failed another "A" school exam.

"I wanted to save lives," Clemons said. "I wanted to help people, so I buckled down."

He spent his first two years working at Naval Hospital Cherry Point in Cherry Point, N.C. When he was up for new orders, Clemons asked to be deployed and was assigned to First Marine Division in Oceanside, Calif., just north of San Diego.

Before working with the Marines, Clemons had to undergo Field Medical Training Battalion, learning everything from the Marines' ranking system and their structure to the way they march, speak and maneuver in combat. He also received rigorous training in treating patients in combat situations.

"You have instructors standing over you, yelling, screaming while you try to simulate rescuing someone with fake blood and fake rounds going off around you," Clemons said.

In Jan. 2009, Clemons was attached to First Battalion Fifth Marines, and in March he was deployed to Afghanistan.

The first weeks were spent acclimating to the brutal 130-degree heat. Clemons' training and hospital experience gave him more medical expertise than anyone in the immediate area, and at times he was responsible for the health of hundreds of people, including 187 local nationals, 22 Marines and 27 members of the Afghan National Army.

Of all those he cared for, Clemons only lost one patient – Baker. On Oct. 20, 2009, the Painesville, Ohio native stepped on a 60-pound IED designed to destroy military vehicles.

"I remember having a good time with that kid that morning," Clemons said. "Twenty minutes before his death we were smoking a cigarette, just laughing and joking like we always did."

Afterwards, Clemons told Baker's mother how her son died. It was his toughest task as a Navy corpsman.

"The day I lost that kid, there was a feeling of helplessness," Clemons said. "No matter how much training you have, no matter how much knowledge you have of how to save a life, sometimes there's nothing you can do to help somebody."

In addition to serving in Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia, Clemons' unit aided Japan following the 2011 tsunami that devastated the island. A Japanese National Police Agency report released Sept. 12 confirmed 15,870 deaths, 6,114 injured and 2,814 people missing. Second Battalion Fifth Marines, the battalion Clemons was assigned to, aided in Japan's recovery efforts in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami.

"I thought my friend's death was as eye-opening as it could get," Clemons said. "On 9/11 we lost 3,000 people. These people lost 15,000 in 20 minutes. That was a reintroduction of being appreciative of life, if nothing else."

 

'I EARNED MY OPPORTUNITY'

After five years, 10 months, 13 days and seven hours of service to his nation, Clemons returned home. His older brother, Chris Kennedy, told Clemons he could live at his house until he got settled and enrolled in college.

Clemons had played football, baseball and basketball and run track in high school, and he was long familiar with Blinn's reputation for fielding successful athletic teams and successfully transferring students to prestigious four-year schools.

In 2009, while Clemons was still in the Navy, his former coach Greg Morgan, now the athletic director and head football coach at Madisonville High School, mailed him a newspaper clipping about Mike Flynt, a 59-year-old who had joined Sul Ross State's football team.

"I said to myself, 'If a 59-year-old guy can do it, why can't I at least try it?'" Clemons said.

He traveled to Blinn's largest campus, in Bryan, where the College's Office of Veterans Affairs helped him enroll and complete the paperwork for his military benefits. With that out of the way, Clemons headed back to Blinn's headquarter campus in Brenham with football on his mind.

At first, he could read the skepticism on the coaches' faces when he told them about his troubled upbringing, but his military career impressed them, and they agreed to give him a shot. A few days later, offensive line and strength coach Kurt Nichols joined Clemons on the Buccaneers' practice field for a tryout.

When they were through, Nichols gave Clemons some tips for improvement and told him he'd be happy to have the young man wearing Buccaneer blue. One week later, Clemons was enrolled in summer semester courses and working toward a college degree.

"He has been terrific," head coach Ronny Feldman said. "His work ethic and commitment make him a natural leader, and his experiences in the military help to put things in perspective for his teammates. There isn't a player on our team who doesn't have tremendous respect for Daniel – both for what he has done in Afghanistan and what he's doing here at Blinn College."

Clemons joined the team as a center but now plays tight end for the Buccaneers, who opened the season ranked fifth in the nation.

"Every time I did something great in my life, it was because someone said I couldn't do it," Clemons said. "They said it was impossible.

"Every day, I know I have 10 years on 99 percent of the guys I'm competing against, so I've got to go hard. If you believe in something or have a dream, you have to give it all you have and lay it all on the line."

Clemons knows he still has challenges before him. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, has difficulty sleeping and takes medications for anxiety disorder. He is studying in hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

"The person I went into boot camp as, I'm not that same person anymore," he said. "The mistakes that I made before, the way I thought about things, I don't think that way anymore."

Occasionally, the coaches catch Clemons seated in front of his locker, gazing up at his helmet, his pads, the nameplate above his locker. Staring at the photo of a 22-year-old Marine who died in Afghanistan almost three years ago.

He knows he has come a long way. He knows he still has much further to go.