Michael Joseph Cleary ’03, a U.S. Army officer who sacrificed his life in his country’s service in Iraq, was born on April 4, 1981, in Wilkes-Barre, PA. The younger son of John P. ’68 and Marianne Nemeth Cleary, he grew up in the small town of Dallas, just outside of Wilkes-Barre. A graduate of Dallas Senior High School, where he captained the soccer and tennis teams, Mike Cleary came to College Hill in 1999. He joined Sigma Phi, participated in varsity soccer as well as intramural sports, and lettered in tennis. With his bright and infectious smile, enthusiastic attitude, and determined commitment to the task at hand, he left an indelible impression on faculty members and fellow students alike. In the words of his senior thesis advisor, Associate Professor of Economics Stephen Wu, “Michael was the type of student who was a joy to teach — inquisitive and hardworking… above all, he was truly an outstanding young man with great integrity.”
Much affected by the events of September 11, 2001, Mike Cleary had an urge to do his part for his country and wished to enlist immediately in the Armed Forces. Persuaded by his family to stay on in college and complete his studies, he instead joined the ROTC program and determinedly drove twice a week to Syracuse University in all kinds of weather to fulfill his ROTC commitment. In his senior year he applied to the Marine Corps’ flight officer program and was accepted. However, when informed that his entry into the program would be delayed until the following January, he decided to enlist immediately in the Army. He began basic training three weeks after his graduation as an economics major in May 2003.
Mike Cleary completed Officer Candidate School as well as Airborne School and the elite sapper school at the Army’s Engineer Center. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he was deployed to Iraq in January 2004 and promoted to first lieutenant. A platoon leader in the 3rd Infantry Division, he was at all times concerned with the welfare of his men, who were engaged in the highly dangerous task of defusing explosive devices and mines. He was considered by his company commander as “a textbook example of a leader,” and his battalion commander recalled that, “He was full of energy and had a trademark smile that motivated us all.” He inspired his troops with his personal courage and dedication, and earned their absolute respect and trust.
In December 2005, with his tour of duty in Iraq scheduled to end in 10 days, Mike Cleary was preparing to return home to marry his fiancée and childhood friend, Erin Kavanagh. The wedding was planned for February 2006, just two months away. He also planned to leave the Army when his active-duty obligation ended and join his father in the family business, Cleary Forest Products, a wholesale lumber brokerage in Dallas. On December 20, he led his unit to an insurgent bomb factory near Samarra, Iraq, in a successful mission to destroy it. They were returning from the mission when the unit was ambushed by insurgent forces. A roadside bomb went off near the Humvee in which Mike Cleary was riding and he was killed instantly.
In addition to his parents and his fiancée, Michael J. Cleary is survived by three sisters, Erin Cleary Flanagan ’91 and Shannon and Kelly Cleary; a brother, Patrick Cleary; and his maternal grandfather, Joseph Nemeth. Posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Mike Cleary left behind a closely-knit family to whom he was utterly devoted. Rather than interment in Arlington National Cemetery, the family chose to keep him “home,” the place where he grew up. Memorial services were held in Dallas on December 29, 2005, with Hamilton classmates and members of the College’s community in attendance. On April 8, 2006, a service was held in the Hamilton Chapel where Michael’s friends, professors and family members shared readings and reflections.