by Laura Bednar
The first celebration using the term “Veterans Day” occurred in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1947, following earlier recognitions of the end of World War I that went under the name “Armistice Day.” While Memorial Day is a serious occasion that honors veterans who have died, Veterans Day is a celebration of all who served in the military. This year, the Bath Country Journal honors veterans with the story of James McClellan, who served in the Air Force in a variety of positions.
After 32 years in the U.S. Air Force, Bath resident Col. James McClellan has internalized the branch’s core values of integrity, service and excellence. His service included deployments to Israel, Turkey and Iraq and his duties ranged from maintaining aircrafts and strategic planning to overseeing 1,600 men and working at the Pentagon.
When asked what kept him in the service as long as he was, he said, “There were a lot of challenges globally and I wanted to continue to serve and make a positive difference.”
McClellan joined the service in 1989 after graduating from Bowling Green State University. He joined the Air Force not only because of familial ties – his father was an Air Force vet – but because of mentors in his life, such as the Boy Scouts of America who “held the same values prevalent to the military,” McClellan said.
Throughout his military career, McClellan’s core responsibility was a logistician, which was similar to supply chain management in that it required analyzing and coordinating the maintenance and delivery of goods or supplies. His first duty was a supply and fuels officer in Delaware where he ran a small warehouse that maintained C-5 aircrafts. From there, he traveled to the United Kingdom to oversee and maintain F-15 aircrafts and continued this role at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
McClellan was deployed to Turkey in 1994 as part of Operation Provide Comfort, which gave support to Kurdish refugees following attacks from Saddam Hussein’s army. His job was to launch and recover F-15E aircrafts in the no-fly zone.
In 1997, McClellan spent a year in South Korea maintaining and delivering patrolling products for Korean troops. He returned there in 2015 for two years, working with the Korean military at their headquarters as the director of logistics, engineering and force protection. His work in logistics was not always related to a particular conflict.
“Most of the time, operational missions are training to maintain a level of readiness in the event of war,” said McClellan, adding that it includes running drills to adapt to peculiarities of certain geographic areas.
He recalled a lighter memory of his time in Korea when he attended a holiday celebration. The Koreans had rules for the event and when the Korean General stood up and spoke, the music and talking abruptly stopped and attendees left. McClellan said the abrupt end surprised him but it was “important to understand their traditions.”
After his first time in Korea, he was chosen to attend Air Command and Staff College in Alabama with other military members, where he earned a masters degree in military operational art and science. He holds two other masters degrees in international relations and affairs as well as strategic studies.
He was deployed to Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2003 and then to Baghdad, Iraq, in 2005, both in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which, according to afhistory.af.mil, was launched to create “a stable Iraq, with its territorial integrity intact and a broad-based government that renounces weapons of mass destruction development and use, and no longer supports terrorism or threatens its neighbors.”
In Iraq, he worked with other U.S. military branches to build a military base in Baghdad for the Iraqi Air Force.
McClellan recalled working at an Iraqi Air Force base and having to drive a group of Iraqi men to a U.S. aircraft at a helicopter pad several miles away. None of the men had proper documentation and did not speak English. McClellan had to explain the situation to the soldiers at each of the four checkpoints along the way and “convince them it was the safe thing to do.”
He also led a group of Iraqi businesswomen home after they returned from a conference in Jordan. The women were so scared that McClellan said they walked behind him in a single file line, following the exact pattern in which he walked as he led them to a bus.
During his time at the Pentagon in the late 2000s, he performed research and analysis to provide decision-quality information to officials who used the data to create policies regarding military operations. He returned for two years in 2013 to 2015 working with the Inspector General’s office analyzing complaints against generals, senior executives and presidential appointees.
Prior to his return to D.C., McClellan spent three years as the commander of 1,600 people performing maintenance on F-15 aircrafts. He described seeing the sea of soldiers before him when he took his post as a “sobering visual.”
McClellan said he realized that every person in the crowd was counting on him and he couldn’t let them down. More than half of the soldiers were under 25 years old.
He said one of the lessons he learned in the military was to “take care of the people, not the mission,” meaning that if the troops were ill equipped, the mission would not be successful. He based everything he did on the Air Force’s core values. Integrity, to McClellan, included having the courage to take the tough job. He volunteered to go to most of the places in his military career. “I viewed it more like an opportunity,” he said. “You want to be the ‘go-to’ person in the room.”
He worked with people of the same mindset, noting his time in Qatar with the special operations command central. “I was surrounded by great Americans trying to do the right thing,” he said.
His career included logistics, customer relations and human resources tasks at several other U.S, military bases. Awards he has received include Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Iraq Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, and the Korean Defense Service Medal.
McClellan retired in 2021 to Bath Township, where he lives with his wife, Lisa. He has two sons, who have followed in his military footsteps. Connor, 29, is in the Army and Ethan, 26, is in the Navy.
“It is not too presumptuous to say that we who wear the uniform, and all who came before us, serve or served this great nation out of a profound sense of duty – and with honor – and with the understanding that the freedoms we have today are secured through this commitment; and these freedoms have been secured by those who came forward and served before us,” he said. ∞
Photo: James McClellan. Photo submitted.