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Generations of family serve bravely

Military service runs deep in the Clark family.

Robert J. Clark, a veteran of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, can trace his family lineage back to half a dozen relatives who served in the Revolutionary War.

In addition, his grandfather Arthur Bailey was part of the occupying force in Cuba after the Spanish-American War.

His father, Robert L. Clark, served as a gunner's mate in the Navy during World War II, participating in the invasions of North Africa and Italy.

As if that weren't enough, Clark's wife, Sue Anne, returned home on Mother's Day last May from her first tour of duty in Iraq with the 107th Airlift Wing from Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

And it doesn't end there.

His daughter, Elena T. Romero, an Army combat flight medic, is currently on her fourth tour of war duty, this time in Afghanistan. And Clark's son, Chris, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, served twice in the Persian Gulf region during the Iraq War. He is now in another global hot spot, South Korea.

But back to Robert J. Clark.

In 1965, at the "ripe old age of 20," Clark said, he never considered not devoting his life to military service.

"My father and four of his brothers were World War II veterans, and it never occurred to me that that was not part of the normal process," he said.

After basic training, Clark volunteered to serve in Vietnam and got his wish. He was soon assigned as a medic to a Marine unit that provided road security for supply convoys en route from Da Nang to Hue.

Fighting was constant.

North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas were often hidden in the tree lines waiting to attack the U.S. trucks.

"Early on in my tour in August 1968, we were on a convoy coming back from Hue when the vehicle in front of me was blown off the road by a rocket round," he recalled. "The dozen Marines riding in the back of that truck were strewn all over the road and the side of a hill.

"I jumped from my vehicle, took my medical bag and got two Marines to provide me with cover fire, and I proceeded to get to the wounded Marines, pulling them to a position of relative safety and treating their wounds. I think I pulled something like eight to safety."

The four whom he did not reach had died on the spot.

Fear was not an option, he said, thanks to his training.

"When you get into a situation like that, you go on muscle memory," he said. "You do what you have to."

For his actions on that day, Aug. 18, 1968, he was awarded a Bronze Star.

On Good Friday, April 4, 1969, another convoy he was assisting had stopped at a base known as An Hoa, about 35 miles southwest of Da Nang.

"Our vehicles were in the compound, and we came under attack by rocket and ground troops," he said. "I was treating a wounded Marine when a rocket hit a few meters away and blew me 5 or 10 yards in the air."

His left arm was filled with shrapnel.

When he regained consciousness a few minutes later, he said, "I went right back to helping the Marine."

His own wounds earned him a Purple Heart.

Clark remained in Vietnam for his full 13-month tour of duty there.

Decades later, the Purple Heart would take on special significance for him.

On Nov. 7 of last year, his daughter, Sgt. Romero, was wounded in Afghanistan.

"She was on a Black Hawk helicopter going into a hot zone to pick up a wounded soldier near the Pakistan border, and her helicopter came under ground fire, and she was wounded by shrapnel as the skin of the chopper began to break apart," he said.

In an unlikely coincidence, the shrapnel struck her left arm, which was what had happened to her dad 41 years earlier.

"Like me, she went back on duty after being patched up," Clark said.

A member of the board of directors of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, Clark said that it is his understanding that he and Elena are the only known father-daughter pair to have been awarded Purple Hearts.

Their story goes even further.

After Vietnam, Clark was a reservist with the Navy and the Marine Corps, and in 1996, he transferred to the New York Air National Guard. He wound up doing a monthlong stint at ground zero in Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

He finished out his career as a reservist in Iraq, serving from January through June of 2005 as the supervisor in the emergency medical tent at Balad Air Base.

His daughter was serving in the Army in Mosul, Iraq, working as a combat medic with an engineering battalion.

The father and daughter crossed paths ever so briefly during that time.

"The Army was kind enough to fly me up to Mosul," he said, "so that I could have lunch with her."

***

Robert J. Clark, 65

Hometown: Brunswick, Maine

Residence: North Tonawanda

Branch: Navy

Rank: Hospital corpsman, second class

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: November 1965 to July 1970

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal

Specialty: Field medic, attached to 11th Motor Transport Battalion, Marine Corps

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