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Salem Marine laid to rest

Thursday, December 23, 2004

A Fallen hero: Marine pallbearers carry the coffin of Marine Cpl. Jason Clairday Dec. 18 at Camp Cemetery in Camp. Clairday was shot and killed in Fallujah Dec. 12.
Staff Writer

Early last summer Salem First Baptist Church Pastor John Hodges accompanied a young man, Jason, to the courthouse, to buy a marriage license.

The fee for the license was $54 and Jason didn't have the money. Hodges pulled the money out of his pocket and paid the clerk.

"We'll run to the ATM and I'll pay you back," Jason said to Hodges.

"I don't need the money. You pay me back in another way," Hodges said to the young man.

On Dec. 12 Jason did.

Over 600 mourners gathered at Salem First Baptist Dec. 18 to pay tribute to 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Jason Clairday, six days after he died in a gunfight in Fallujah.

"He will be greatly missed by those who knew and loved him," said Hodges to the somber crowd. "I don't know of anyone who loved people and life as much as Jason."

Clairday, a 2001 Salem High School graduate, was killed along with five other Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

According to military officials, Clairday and his fellow Marines were killed during a small arms exchange with Iraqi insurgents.

One of the Marines killed in Clairday's unit, 21-year-old Cpl. Gregory Rund, was a survivor of the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., according to published reports.

Prior to his deployment in Iraq, Clairday married Sarah McCullough July 31.

"When her father first met Jason he thought the boy was a fake because no kid could be that good. He learned in time that Jason was no fake," Hodges said.

Gov. Mike Huckabee ordered flags across the state to be flown at half staff Dec. 18 in honor of Clairday.

Family, friends and a contingent of Marines sobbed as Hodges lavished praise upon the man who was the first from Fulton County to die in the war.

As the pastor spoke, two Marines flanked the ends of the flag-draped coffin.

Hodges said Clairday had a "mischievous smile" and loved to embrace other people.

"Jason loved to be hugged. He responded really well to hugs," Hodges said with a crack in his voice.

Hodges recounted how Clairday became a member of his church. He said Clairday found Christ when he was a junior in high school.

"One day Jason and my son (Josh) were in my office video taping something for the school. I told Josh he needed to get ready for church and Jason decided to join us," Hodges said.

Later, other members of Clairday's family attended church with him.

"Everyone in that family came to know Christ because of Jason," Hodges said.

During high school Clairday was active in the church, played baseball and sang in the church choir."He was an avid hunter and fisherman. He spent a lot of time fishing in the creeks around Camp," Hodges said.

He said Clairday had only three things on his mind during high school: girls, church and baseball.

"And no one, including Jason, knew from day to day which was more important," Hodges said in a light moment.

Salem High School principal Wayne Guiltner said Clairday excelled at baseball.

"He (Jason) may not have been the most talented player, but he worked at it. He was a leader by example," Guiltner said.

After high school, Clairday joined the Marines. His four year commitment to the Marines was slated to end in April or May of next year.

Just before his death, Clairday told Brenda Sutherland, his "adopted" mother, that the situation in Iraq was getting worse.

"It's more difficult to liberate a country than I thought," Clairday told her.

Hodges said Clairday tentatively planned to attend college after his military service ended.

"It was not meant to be," Hodges said.

Emotions rose to a crescendo when a video of Clairday and the First Baptist youth choir singing the gospel song "It's Shouting Time in Heaven" was played on two screens.

A gasp from the crowd gave way to sobs and tears as a younger Jason sang and danced on the screen.

Hodges said it was Jason's favorite song.

After the church service ended, a female friend of Clairday's, who wished not to be identified, said it was a "shock" to attend his funeral.

"He was one of the nicest people I've ever known," the friend said as tears filled her eyes.

The service concluded with Clairday's interment at the Camp Cemetery.

Hundreds of mourners watched as a group of Marines pallbearers carried Clairday's coffin to its final resting place.

A gun salute and the ceremonial playing of "Taps" followed.

The service ended when a flag and Clairday's posthumous Purple Heart were presented to Sarah Clairday.

Besides his wife, Clairday is survived by his biological parents, Virgil Clairday Jr. and Nancy McWilliams; his "mom" and "dad," Brenda and Rodney Sutherland of Camp; three brothers, including, Chris Youngblood; and a grandmother.

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