James McCormick

Posted: May 26, 2013 in Uncategorized

e-Cover #8On January 26, 1968, James L. McCormick II was born two weeks early in South Charleston, West Virginia upon his mother receiving the incorrect telegram that her husband had lost his arm and leg to wounds received fighting at Dak To, Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. Wounded but without the loss of any limbs, his father went on to serve a second tour in Vietnam. The McCormicks descend from a long line of citizens of West Virginia who answered their nation’s call in time of war.

While still in Winfield High School, young James had enlisted as a Scout (MOS 19D) in the West Virginia National Guard in 1985 and right after graduation in 1986, he went on active duty as a cavalry scout with the 2-4 Cavalry, 24th Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia. He then reenlisted for the 197th Separate Infantry Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia, which was the third brigade of MG Barry McCaffrey’s 24th Infantry Division and as a squad leader his scout platoon lead the brigade into Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. His platoon lost three of its six M113 APCs when it made contact with an Iraqi logistical base. During the resulting attack, McCormick was wounded while attacking fortified bunkers. This resulted in his first Purple Heart Medal and Bronze Star Medal with V Device.

Upon his return, McCormick became a drill sergeant and upon completion of his second enlistment in 1994, James left the Army to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration from West Virginia State College in Charleston on the GI Bill. He continued his military service as a National Guard recruiter and upon his graduation in 1998, he gave up his active duty position to work full time for Tysons Food and became a platoon sergeant in the Indiana National Guard. Two years later he transferred to the Tennessee National Guard and received a direct commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the Armor in 2002. He completed the Air Defense Artillery (ADA) Basic Officers’ Course in March 2003 and transferred to the Ohio National Guard that same year. That month, the US V Corps crossed the berm into Iraq and the United States.

With his country at war in Iraq, McCormick knew where he was needed. Watching convoys coming under attack in Iraq on television, he quickly volunteered to deploy with the 1487th Medium Truck Company (OH NG). His company arrived in Kuwait in February 2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2 and conducted long haul missions from Kuwait to nearly every camp in Iraq. James had his hands full trying to grasp the concept of convoy operations and demonstrated a level of aggressiveness during ambushes that was unfamiliar to most of the truck drivers. During an ambush in March, he was wounded for a second time. The sergeants protested to their commander about his aggressiveness, who asked him to stay in and give his leg wound a rest and see how the sergeants performed on their own. The war would change in a way that proved James was right.

On April 5, the radical young cleric, Muqtada al Sadr, flexed his muscle and called for a jihad against the coalition forces. This uprising resulted in the worst single period of convoy ambushes of the war, and a sergeant from another truck company in his battalion asked him to escort his convoy north, anticipating danger along the way. On Thurdsay April 8, McCormick and the crew of his striped Hummvee gun truck, the Zebra, fought it out in the kill zone for 20 minutes. The enemy fire was so devastating that all three gunners in the other gun truck were wounded within three minutes of the fight and left the kill zone. McCormick firing the .50 caliber machinegun from atop the Hummvee was shot in the hand and chest protector earning his third Purple Heart Medal. That night the insurgents completely severed the supply route south of Bagdad International Airport (BIAP) and the next day, Good Friday, any convoy trying to get into or out of BIAP was ambushed. The worst ambush involved the 724th POL in which KBR driver, Tommy Hamil, was captured and later escaped. Two Army drivers were killed, one captured and is still missing in action and eight KBR drivers were killed. The next day, all convoys were locked down where ever they were.

The enemy realized the soft underbelly of the 1st Cavalry Division was its dependency on trucks for fuel and ammunition, which it drew from BIAP. Having completely cut the 1st Cav off from resupply; on Easter Sunday at lunch time, the insurgents launched a large scale attack agaisnt the southwest wall at BIAP which separated them from several hundred truck drivers. Hearing gun fire, McCormick had his gun truck drive up to the ramp just as the Madhi Militia began their attack. About a dozen truck drivers out of several hundred would join his five man crew on the wall and beat back the insurgents in an approximately 40-minute battle. Had the enemy breached the wall, American casualties would have been high. Having won that battle his crew could not rest though.

30 minutes after they came off the wall, his gun truck had volunteered to escort an ammunition convoy to the Green Zone, the headquarters of the 1st Cav. All roads were rated as black, which meant enemy contact was likely. Another fuel convoy had tried to leave earlier that morning as was ambushed a few miles away and an Apache helicopter was shot down coming to its rescue. Knowing the risk, McCormick’s crew rode with him out the gate and fought their way through another ambush that ran for several miles without the loss of one vehicle. They made that run two more days each time successfully fighting their way through two more ambushes. All but one of his crew were wounded that week.

All of a sudden the war had changed and truck drivers had to fight for control of the road. Captain Robert Landry interviewed veterans of this month of violence and took notice of McCormick’s heroic actions. Landry dreamed up the idea of creating a gun truck company recruited from “volunteers.” A former infantry officer, he had commanded two companies before and this experienced officer knew that his transportation group needed a company of gun trucks that would escort the convoys through Indian country like the Wild West. The company was named the 518th Combat Gun Truck Company (Provisional), but he called them Regulators, complete with Marshal’s stars painted on the door. There was only one person he sought out to create the warrior ethos he wanted to instill in the other volunteers – 2nd Lieutenant James McCormick. All but one of the crew members who had ridden with him in the previous ambushes volunteered to follow him into the 518th. This leadership team included hardnosed, Sergeant First Class Jody Cuthbertson as the first sergeant, who developed an aggressive tactical doctrine, which McCormick called, “turn, fix and fire.” This second year of the war resulted in the worst fighting between the truck drivers and insurgents for control of the road and the 518th never lost a vehicle to the enemy.

By December, Landry had left and McCormick and Cuthbertson had trained up their replacements. Their battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Sagen, accurately assessed that enemy activity had moved south near the border and tasked McCormick to form the remaining combat veterans of the 518th into a route security element called the RSE. No sooner than they began patrolling north of the Kuwait border than they began busting up ambushes. On the night of the Iraqi national elections, January 30, 2005, the insurgents surprised a convoy near where McCormick’s patrol of two Humvee gun trucks waited. They drove to the rescue of the convoy then upon return to their overwatch position were attacked by the enemy. McCormick instinctively felt the fight shift and overran the enemy capturing eight. Just as a British platoon came up, more insurgents joined the fight. At that time, McCormick’s right hand man and trusted friend, Jody Cuthbertson, arrived as the enemy was gaining the flank and high ground. Cuthbertson turned the battle in favor of the defenders and a British battalion finally arrived and swept the battlefield ending the battle. For 40 minutes, McCormick and his soldiers slugged it out with the enemy without any loses. The insurgents would not try to ambush any convoys like that on that route for several years.

McCormick was an instinctive fighter and epitomized the Army’s warrior ethos. He left the war with three Purple Heart Medals and three Bronze Star Medals with V devices for valor. For his actions during Easter weekend at BIAP, he has been recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross and for his actions on the last firefight, he has been recommended for the Silver Star Medal.

McCormick returned home to West Virginia but remained loyal to his soldiers of the Ohio National Guard. He transferred to the Army Transportation Corps and subsequently commanded two truck companies willing and ready to lead them back to Iraq if called upon. President George Bush was so impressed with his loyalty to the cause that he personally met with the young lieutenant during his visit to West Virginia in July 2005.

James McCormick is the subject of several works in progress. The US Army Transportation Corps Historian, Richard Killblane, has written an article in Soldier of Fortune magazine about the Battle of BIAP. He is also writing two books on the war in which McCormick is the main character. He also wrote and produced a video, “Road War,” on that year of the war which features McCormick and the 518th Gun Truck Company. James Bretney has written a television screen play about McCormick’s tour in the war and created a series of short videos, “Blaze of Glory,” about him and the 518th Gun Truck Company on YouTube.

An interview of McCormick will be featured in a book written by Carl Mira about the war.

James A. Bretney contributed to this article

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