Posted: June 13, 2006
THE HERO AT THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION
By Celia Cohen
The hero at the Democratic state convention will not be on a ballot this November. Going into the convention, only a handful of people even knew who he was.
He emerged unexpectedly as U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper gave his speech last Friday evening to about 200 Democrats, who were meeting on the Wesley College campus in Dover to endorse statewide candidates.
Carper was ending his remarks by talking about the troops in Iraq -- "Part of loving them is to find a strategy to begin to bring them home" -- and then seemed to switch topics by mentioning a former staff member of his, but he was not switching topics.
Sean Barney came to Carper's 2000 Senate campaign on the recommendation of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley after he folded his presidential candidacy and was trying to help his staffers find other work.
Barney, now 31, was originally from Chatham, N.J. He handled issues research for Carper's campaign, and after the election, Carper hired him as a senior legislative aide for the tough subjects -- budget, taxes and Social Security.
Carper considered Barney quite a find. "He had a real gift for explaining concepts and ideas in a way that I could internalize. He wrote better than anyone else on the staff," Carper said.
Sometime after Sept. 11, Barney came to Carper. He said he knew Carper was in the Navy during the Vietnam War and felt the need to do something like that. Carper talked him out if it, saying he was serving his country and Delaware by working in the Senate -- "I said, I need you here."
Barney thought about it some more, then came back to Carper. He was enlisting in the Marines -- and not even as an officer. Carper was uneasy, but Barney was determined. "From the day he told me he was going to join the Marines, I had this premonition he would go overseas, and he would get hurt," Carper said.
Barney enlisted in May 2002. After his training, he was attached to a reserve unit in New Jersey. In late March he was sent to Iraq. Barney was very much on Carper's mind on May 12, the day he paid a condolence call on the family of Cory Palmer, the 21-year-old Seaford Marine killed in the war.
"As I sat in the home, I shared with them my concerns about Sean Barney and my fears that something would happen to him," Carper said.
Hours later, Carper learned that Barney had been shot by a sniper in Fallujah. He was hit in the neck, the bullet severing his carotid artery and nipping his jugular vein but missing his Adam's apple and spine.
A Navy corpsman was in the area and had Barney in a hospital in 12 minutes. A doctor there got the bleeding stopped and sent him on his way stateside to recover.
The Democrats were riveted on Carper's story and not prepared for what came next. Barney was in the convention hall, and Carper hailed him up to the front.
"Lance Corporal Sean Barney. If this guy's not a hero, I don't know who is, and he's a Democrat!" Carper called.
People were standing, clapping and crying. They saw someone who was not exactly a standard-issue six-foot-five Marine with shoulders and a stare like a truck barreling down a highway, but a little guy, standing five-foot-five, with a raw red scar on the side of his neck and his right arm in a tight sling.
If Barney had been a Delaware resident, he would have been in danger of being endorsed for the Democrats' opening for state auditor on the spot.
It has been an unpredictable odyssey for Barney, a Democratic true-believer with an academic bent, someone who was once much more likely to be called "wonk" than "jarhead."
Still, Barney had enough political derring-do, after going to college at Swarthmore and graduate school at Columbia, to show up at Bradley's headquarters and volunteer -- "to do whatever," as he put it.
"Whatever" eventually moved him from volunteer to driver to a senior aide editing Bradley's briefing books to speechwriter and then propelled him on to Carper. In the back of his mind, though, there were the thoughts he had at Swarthmore that maybe he should be a Marine.
The terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything. Barney and other staff members were in Carper's Senate office on a telephone call with him as he took the train to Washington when they had to break it off to evacuate.
"After 9-11, it was either you're going to do it or you're not going to do it. I felt if I didn't go, somebody else would go," Barney said.
He went, not that it was easy or that he did not have his doubts, particularly when he looked at those strapping Marines in the recruitment ads. "Definitely, when I first joined, looking at the posters, I wondered whether I would make it," Barney said.
The Marines toughened him up -- "I think one of the reasons I'm alive is they trained us hard" -- and Barney did not even fall down when he took the bullet in Fallujah. He first thought he had been hit in his shoulder, where the exit wound was, not in the neck.
"I heard the shot and felt the effect immediately. It wasn't this major pain when it happened. I heard this buzzing sound, and then everything got real slow. It was sort of a weird set of physics," Barney said. "I remained on my feet. I ended up running."
The Navy corpsman got to him, and he eventually collapsed. He heard talk about a tourniquet and thought, "I'm shot in the neck! Where are they going to put the tourniquet?"
Two weeks after he was wounded, Barney recovered enough to leave the hospital and go to Philadelphia, where his wife is a first-year family medicine resident. He still is being treated for nerve damage in his right shoulder, which may never be completely right. He has been accepted at Stanford law school and eventually expects to enroll there.
Exactly four weeks removed from Iraq, Barney was in Dover at the Democratic state convention and getting teased by Edward J. Freel, the secretary of state when Carper was governor, about his first standing ovation.
"It [Carper's shout-out] was a little over the top but very sweet," Barney said. "Maybe if I was done with law school, I'd have taken that auditor's race."
For now, however, as he recuperates, he plans to help Carper in his re-election campaign as well as Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III in his race for attorney general.
Now everyone will know Barney on the campaign trail, because he will be so easy to spot. He is the one with the scar and the sling and all that heart.