IU ROTC alumnus 1st Lt. Clayton R. Cullen was one of two soldiers who died in a helicopter crash early in the morning Jan. 20 during training operations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, according to a United States Army press release. He was 25 years old.
The cause of the accident is still under investigation, according to the press release.
“Clayton was the kind of guy who would always open his arms to you," Shawn Stachula, executive officer of IU Army ROTC, said.
Cullen would always go the extra mile to make sure people knew he was there to be a resource and friend to everyone, Stachula said.
When Stachula was a freshman, Cullen was a senior. Stachula said he remembers him as resilient, kind and caring. Cullen was a mentor to him and many others, he said.
Claudia Morin, a senior in IU Army ROTC who will be in aviation after she graduates, was one of the people Cullen took under his wing. She said Cullen helped her believe that she could pursue aviation.
"He was dedicated,” Morin said. “He was willing to help anyone he needed to. He was definitely a competent and bold leader.”
Cullen had a strong family upbringing and came from a loving and supporting home, Julie S. Cullen, first cousins with Clayton Cullen, said. Julie S. Cullen, 39, shares the same first and last name as Clayton Cullen's mother, Julie Cullen.
She said Cullen was genuinely interested in the success of other people.
“He was just interested in wanting to get to know you and wanting to see you succeed,” Julie S. Cullen said.
When Clayton Cullen was in Indianapolis for the Army, Julie S. Cullen would cook dinner for him and the two traded family stories.
Clayton Cullen's favorite food was fried chicken made by his great Aunt, Carolyn "Aunt Kay" Mengedoht.
"He was just happy to sit down to a warm meal and take time to visit with me and talk about his family," Julie S. Cullen said.
When the two had time, they liked to go to music concerts. They went to whatever concert would fit into Clayton Cullen’s busy schedule, including Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band and the Zac Brown Band.
Clayton Cullen’s dedication to whatever he was doing extended beyond his studies and ROTC. Julie S. Cullen described a memory from last Christmas, which Clayton Cullen spent with his family, where he was building a gingerbread house for a five-year-old.
"As the five-year-old lost interest and went to the sofa to watch cartoons, Clay didn't lose interest,” Julie S. Cullen said. “He wanted to make sure that gingerbread house was put together absolutely perfect. He stood there and with his drive and determination and dedication to anything he was doing, that gingerbread house was put together perfectly.”
With friends, Cullen was a total goofball and always the life of the party, Hannah Mackey, a friend of Cullen said. She described him as selfless, brave, passionate and intentional in the way he lived his life and the way he loved people.
“He's so selfless, just so full of life,” Mackey said. “Clay, he could be a very serious guy. He's very smart. I always knew that he was going to grow up to be something amazing.”
At North Knox High School, Cullen was a member of the National Honor Society and MVP of the soccer team, according to the Chicago Tribune. Mackey said Cullen played goalie for the team.
Mackey said the most special moments she shared with Cullen were during an 18-day church mission trip to Sri Lanka. Cullen brought along his soccer ball for the trip.
"A lot of times he would just play soccer with the kids," Mackey said. "Even though there was a communication barrier, he broke that barrier just by his love of soccer.”
Mackey described a scene on the trip where Cullen was holding a Sri Lankan girl who was sobbing into his arms. Cullen held her calmly and was there for her.
“You could just see the love in his eyes,” Mackey said. “Love for these people.”
Stachula said their age difference and professional relationship made Cullen more of a mentor than a friend to him. He described Cullen as a leader, and as someone who had a strong presence in the room.
Cullen was always asking others how they were doing and how they could do better, Stachula said.
Cullen was assigned to the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, also known as the Iron Eagles.
Cullen exemplified what's expected of the Army’s best leaders, Col. Scott Gallaway, commander of the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, said in the press release.
“These two young leaders left an indelible mark on the entire Iron Eagle team,” Gallaway said. “We will forever be better soldiers, and a more combat-ready aviation brigade, due to their leadership."
Morin said Cullen was always smiling. She said she didn’t think there was ever a time where he wasn’t happy to be doing what he was doing.
“If you look at the ROTC Facebook page, the last picture is him sitting in his Apache, smiling at the camera,” Morin said. “That's the smile that he always had."
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