Experience PCC Academics Continuing Education Distance Learning Faculty & Staff Contact
Apply Now Click Here

ECU's David J. Smith Leadership Award Presented to PCC Employee Zack Cleghorn

Zack Cleghorn holds up his David J. Smith Leadership Award while proudly displaying his PCC employee name badge and wearing his alma mater's purple and gold. “If you fall behind, run faster, never give up, and rise against the odds,” Cleghorn says these days. “You can be the underdog in the fight, but just finish it.”

GREENVILLE—Pitt Community College employee Zachary Cleghorn was honored by his alma mater last month, when he received the David J. Smith Leadership Award from East Carolina University’s College of Engineering and Technology.

Cleghorn, an Industrial Instructor/Coordinator with PCC’s Continuing Education Division, is pursuing a master’s degree at ECU in Technology Management. He received $1,000 through the award, which was established in memory of an ECU student who died in Afghanistan in 2010 while serving as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Cleghorn also served in the Marines and was deployed to Helmand Province in 2009 – the same area where Smith was killed in a suicide bombing at age 25. As he accepted his award Sept. 28, Cleghorn told Smith’s mother, Mary McWilliams, it would have been an honor to have met her son.

“I want to take the time to thank Mrs. McWilliams and her family for their contribution to my education,” Cleghorn said. “And I want to tell you that I am sorry about your son, even though the words I say will never fill the void that you will always carry in your heart.”

Smith, a Maryland resident, majored in industrial distribution and logistics at ECU. Twice, he put his studies on hold for military service – in 2006 for a tour in Iraq and 2009, when his unit was sent to Afghanistan. Those who knew him remember his ever-present smile and willingness to lend a helping hand.

The award that honors Smith’s memory was presented to Cleghorn in recognition of his community service, involvement with veterans on and off campus, student mentoring, and for turning his life around to inspire others. His remarkable comeback from the depths of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression after leaving the military made national news in March.

After six years in the Marine Corps, Cleghorn’s service ended in May 2012 and, as he explained, “things turned dark” for the native of Decatur, Texas.

“Without the aid of the military or (Veterans Affairs), I went homeless in Charlotte,” he said. “I lived in my car for several months, and it got to the point I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror.”

His struggles led to an unsuccessful suicide attempt in May 2013. Afterward, he felt pushed to seek help even as he wondered why he was still alive.

Cleghorn says he reached out to a fellow Marine living in Greenville, who wired him $40 to make his way across the state to Pitt County. He ended up sleeping on his friend’s couch for several months before enrolling at PCC in the fall of 2013.

After a year at Pitt, Cleghorn transferred to ECU and life continued to improve as he made the most of opportunities he never dreamed he could have. He completed his bachelor’s degree three years later and began working at PCC in November.

Looking back, the 29-year-old Cleghorn feels he has honored his “fallen brothers and sisters” in the Marines by never giving up. “That unfamiliar person that I once saw in the mirror is starting to look more and more familiar each day,” he added.

Cleghorn says the money he received as part of the Smith Award will help him finish up his master’s degree. He plans to seek a doctorate degree after that, hopefully at ECU.

No matter what school, though, Cleghorn says, “I can assure you that David’s memory will live always through me and my actions.”