Maj. Reginald McClam was standing in the East Wing of the White House in November 2011 when he saw the candidates to replace him as the U.S. Marine Corps aide to the president.
One of the Marines, Maj. Lee Meyer, looked familiar, and McClam asked where he was from. They quickly realized they had been friends and teammates at Garner High School, where they both graduated in 1992.
“He was wearing a suit and he looked really familiar to me, too,” Meyer said. “The Corps is so small that it happens all the time that you see someone and you try to place why they look familiar.
“Suddenly, here we are, two Marines standing in the White House, hugging.”
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Meyer went on to fill McClam’s post. During his exit ceremony in the Oval Office with Barack Obama, McClam said, “Mr. President, I want to introduce you to Lee Meyer. He is a good Marine and a good man. We went to the same high school and played on the same football and track teams. We were in the same French class. We are old friends.”
Obama said McClam had to be kidding.
“How did two country boys like you end up coming back-to-back to the White House?” McClam recalled the president saying.
McClam and Meyer still have a tough time believing it. As part of their job, they carried a briefcase that contained the launch codes for the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
When the two men reunited that first day, they hadn’t seen each other in 19 years. After high school, McClam went to UNC-Pembroke and Meyer went to N.C. State University.
“I didn’t even know Lee was in the Marines,” McClam said. “We had just lost touch.”
His old friend looked a lot different.
“Lee had lost a lot of weigh,” McClam said. “He had been a (193-pound) tight end and back-up quarterback. He had slimmed down so much I didn’t recognize him.”
Karen Miller taught the French III class that included McClam and Meyer. It was the only class they had together at Garner.
“It is not surprising to me at all that they would do such wonderful things,” said Miller, who retired after 30 years in the classroom. “They were smart boys. They were kind. They were considerate. They were what parents hope their child grows up to be.”
Nelson Smith, who was an assistant football coach at Garner in the fall of 1991, isn’t surprised either.
“They were great kids,” Smith said. “They gave you everything they had on the football field and they were just good people. I would say they didn’t have a mean bone in their bodies except they are both United States Marines. But I guess their mean bones are the good kind.”
Both came from military backgrounds. Meyer’s father was a Marine Corps sergeant who served in Vietnam, and McClam’s father was an Air Force master sergeant.
Meyer knew he wanted to be a Marine when he graduated from high school, but he wanted to experience college before enlisting. McClam wanted to join the North Carolina State Highway Patrol after college, but he joined the Marines after he learned he couldn’t pass the Highway Patrol’s vision test.
Both advanced through the ranks and served in combat.
McClam served as an assistant operations officer in Iraq in 2006, as a rifle company commander in Afghanistan in 2007 and as the operations officer in the Helmand province of Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009.
He was in Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 2010 when he learned he was being considered for the White House job.
“I didn’t want it,” McClam said. “It looked like a secretary job. Your duties are whatever the president wants you to do. I didn’t join the Marines to be a secretary. I wanted to lead Marines.”
But the Corps had other plans for him. He was told to apply, interview and accept the position if it was offered.
“And it was a great experience,” McClam said. “You are on call 24-7, literally. You are ready to assist the president at a moment’s notice.”
In 2015, three years after he left the White House job, McClam was deployed in Europe when he learned he had non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was hospitalized in Washington, D.C., and was stunned when Obama visited him for more than 25 minutes.
“They basically had to shut the hospital down for a presidential visit, but it meant so much to me,” McClam said. “It was something that I never would have expected to happen.”
He continued: “I am a living testament of God’s grace and mercy. God healed me. I am completely cancer free and I am still a Marine.”
Meyer, who was a pilot for Cobra attack helicopters, also didn’t expect Obama to take such a personal interest in him.
“The first day I was there, we were traveling in Marine One, the president’s helicopter,” Meyer said. “The president looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going to screw this up on the first day, are you?’ Then he just laughed and laughed.”
McClam and Meyer won’t celebrate Veterans Day together this year. McClam and the battalion he leads recently began a six-month deployment in Okinawa, Japan. Meyer is studying procurement policies and procedures at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy in Washington, D.C.
But the men crossed paths last year when they were both stationed at Camp Lejeune, 125 miles southeast of Garner.
McClam said serving in the White House was a great honor.
“But the best job I have ever had in the Corps is the job that I have right now,” he said. “Leading Marines and sailors is the ultimate. That’s why I became a Marine.”
Tim Stevens writes story about Garner for The News & Observer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.