Marine died backing her beliefs

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She was known for sprinting along the Tigris River in Iraq, competing in a triathlon in Brazil and doing a back flip in North Carolina to prove to police she was sober.

With her copper-red hair, athletic ability and sense of humor, Maj. Megan McClung was a memorable figure to the troops and journalists she worked with as a Marine Corps public affairs officer.

A few weeks ago, the 34-year-old organized a marathon at the al-Asad air base in Iraq to honor fallen comrades.

On Dec. 6, she joined the list of fallen herself. While escorting reporters around Ramadi in a convoy of Humvees, the 1990 Mission Viejo High School graduate was a victim of a roadside bomb, making her the first female Marine officer to be killed in the war.

Tributes have poured in from around the globe.

"Her athleticism was a metaphor for her life," Lt. Col. Bryan Salas said in a eulogy that was read in Fallouja on Tuesday and forwarded to her parents. "She took it to the wall. She ran hard to the finish line, and she was always a winner."

Journalists regarded McClung as one of the finest public-affairs officers in Iraq, said Lawrence F. Kaplan, writing at the New Republic magazine's website. "She did a difficult job cheerfully and she did it well," he wrote.

On Whidbey Island in Washington, her parents, Mike and Re McClung, struggled to describe their daughter's life. "We can't really put 34 years into a sound bite," they said in a telephone interview.

"Please don't portray this as a tragedy," her mother said. "It is for us, but Megan died doing what she believed in, and that's a great gift.... She believed in the mission there -- that the Iraqi people should have freedom."

Born in Hawaii, McClung grew up in Mission Viejo, where she demonstrated an early knack for sports, taking tumbling classes at age 2 and gymnastics at 5.

"She was always breaking through the ceiling when people said she couldn't do something," Re McClung recalled. In high school, hoping to build her upper-body strength for gymnastics, Megan signed up for a weightlifting class, only to be told no girls were allowed.

So she showed up at a school board meeting to request that the ban on females be overturned, her mother said. The school board agreed.

From there, McClung became the first woman to attend the Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey. In 1995, she graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.

Military service runs in her family's blood. Her maternal grandfather was a Navy pilot, her paternal grandfather served in the Army and her father was a Marine infantry officer.

McClung's specialty was working with the media, a task she carried out with consummate professionalism and a keen sense of humor, by all accounts.

She also remained an avid athlete.

In the late 1990s, as a public affairs officer at the Marine Corps Air Station in Havelock, N.C., McClung entertained journalists with a story about being pulled over by a police officer and doing a back flip to prove she was sober, said Sigrid Hughes, who wrote for the local paper at the time.

McClung's father said he couldn't confirm the story, "but it sounds like something Megan would do."

Others who knew her recalled McClung's running ability.

Over the years, she competed in Ironman competitions in Brazil, Kona and Camp Pendleton, her parents said.

In Iraq, she liked to run along the Tigris River at nightfall. "Even in the midst of war, Megan was ... a running-fool," one blogger recalled. "She was dedicated to her running, rain or shine, freezing or scorching hot."

Hughes' husband, Scott, who also worked with McClung in North Carolina, recalled a three-mile race in which McClung "took off like a shot" from the starting block. "All of the rabbits, including myself, laughed and sprinted after her," he wrote in an online memorial. "Four of us threw up trying to catch her; no one did. She kept running and smiling. That is how I will remember her."

A memorial service is scheduled for Monday at Quantico, Va. McClung will be buried Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery.

roy.rivenburg@latimes.com

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