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‘Every soldier there was a hero’

Then-2nd Lt. McCormick (left) poses in front of "Zebra".<br>U.S. Army
Then-2nd Lt. McCormick (left) poses in front of "Zebra".

When 2nd Lt. James McCormick heard the calls for help over the radio from troops caught in an ambush, he scrambled in hopes of getting into the fight.

Just days earlier, McCormick had been shot three times in an ambush a few miles from his base, a logistical staging zone near Baghdad International Airport. It was April 2004 and the war was still in its early stages. The Iraqi capital was turning more violent by the day.

“I told my guys in the other Humvee, ‘Let’s mount up and go get them,’ ” said McCormick, who was attached to the 1487th Transportation Company and was responsible for convoy security. “I thought, a couple guys are better than no guys.”

At the gate, however, McCormick and his team were turned back by guards and told to remain on post. As it turned out, only moments later there would be plenty of fighting to do right where he was. For his actions that day — April 11, 2004 — McCormick would be recognized with a Silver Star for his leadership during the defense of his compound, repeatedly putting himself in the line of fire.

McCormick’s “exceptional gallantry, courage and leadership saved hundreds of lives, protected critical military assets, and inflicted heavy causalities on the enemy,” his Silver Star commendation reads.

The order that McCormick received to stay on post rather than respond to the ambush only a few miles away saved the base from being overrun by insurgents.

McCormick and his teammates were moving back from the gate’s exit, passing a berm on the perimeter where a guard tower stood, when chaos erupted. The tower was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, marking the start of an onslaught by insurgents.

“They lit that guard tower up, and when we got on top of that berm it was unbelievable how many people were out in that damn field,” he said.

Just beyond the fence line, streams of fighters dressed in black were moving through the high grass.

When McCormick looked down, one of the fighters, perhaps 20 feet away, had on what appeared to be a vest of explosives. The men opened fire and the insurgent exploded, McCormick said.

Small-arms and RPG fire started poured in from the field, leaving McCormick’s Humvee shredded with bullet holes. It was the early days of the Iraq War, before armored Humvees became the norm.

“It was like somebody threw a hornet’s nest on top of my head,” said McCormick, who was medically retired as a captain in 2009.

There were about 60 fighters in the field, moving in small teams of three and five men. McCormick and his troops opened fire and the insurgents started dropping. But the bullets kept striking close — one passing through McCormick’s pant leg.

“We had so many bullets hit that Humvee, it was almost comical,” he said.

For about 10 minutes, McCormick and a handful of soldiers were on their own, standing in the line of fire to repel the enemy.

“I am yelling on the radio, calling for reinforcements,” he said. “People were scared, man. People were terrified. Rounds were hitting chow hall 300 meters back.”

Eventually, help came and pushed the fighters back into a building in the distance, killing some while others fled.

“They were using these kids for a damn shield, so when that happened, soldiers took cover and just took it,” McCormick said. “The fact our soldiers were disciplined enough to not return fire at that moment speaks volumes. Every soldier there was a hero.”

For McCormick, the day was only getting started. After repelling the onslaught, he had to make ammunition deliveries into the Green Zone several miles away.

“It seemed like we were getting shot at the whole time,” he said.

McCormick said his team was under fire almost immediately after leaving their base, fighting en route to the Green Zone.

After making the delivery, which included dropping off 14 trucks, McCormick and his men prepared for more battle. There were three more delivery runs to make.

When they got back to their base, McCormick told his men that he could find replacements.

“They all said, ‘No, we’re going to go.’ We had to go back and do it three more times,” he said. “So we picked up 15 more trucks. We took fire as soon as we got out that gate.”

By the fourth trip, the gunfire was sporadic.

“Either we killed most of them or they realized this was not a good day for them,” said McCormick, who served 16 years as an enlisted infantrymen before becoming an officer. “The key to convoy security is to not run. Those guys with me were the most courageous soldiers. I don’t remember a braver group of soldiers in my life.”

For McCormick, it was the culmination of a harrowing four-day span. On April 8, he was ambushed and shot three times while conducting a security patrol. He was offered a trip to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the military hospital in Germany, for treatment. McCormick declined.

“I just wanted to get back to my men,” he said.

Several years ago, he was recognized with a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor in connection with heroism in the ambush response. In 2014, McCormick was recognized with the Silver Star during a ceremony in his home state of West Virginia.

Today, McCormick, 47, works as state director for a Department of Veterans Affairs program that helps servicemembers transition to careers in agriculture. He said he often thinks of the events in Baghdad, and hopes that one day the soldiers who fought alongside him receive recognition for their valor on the battlefield.

“I dream about that fight a lot,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think there is anything my guys could have done better.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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