Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Struggling Hero

Winner of three Bronze Stars still helping vets.

We’re walking along a dusty gravel road in the valley between two West Virginia ridges when the Iraqi War hero that I’m interviewing suddenly notices something troubling.

“I planted a bamboo shoot beside that stream and arranged some rocks as a memorial to a fallen soldier who was a friend of mine,” says James. L. McCormick, his voice tightening a little. As I look down toward the stream, I can see a hole where the bamboo has been ripped out and the stone memorial has been kicked apart. 

McCormick has seen a number of friends fall, but many more foes drop. He won his first Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for leading attacks on enemy bunkers during Desert Storm as a scout squad leader. Then he was awarded two more Bronze Stars and two more Purple Hearts for his service in Iraq. And the retired Army captain has also been nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star, the nation’s second- and third-highest military awards for valor.

“This guy is the Audie Murphy of the truck drivers,” says Rich Killblane, the U.S. Army Transportation Corps historian based in Fort Lee, Va. “No truck driver has been in as many ambushes as he has, and all the big ones.”

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

These days, McCormick has bought a 15-acre farm a few miles east of the Ohio River for his own peace of mind and to help his fellow vets. He calls it the “Raising Cane Farm,” and for erosion control on steep hillsides, he plants as much bamboo as he can afford at nearly $20 a plant.

“I provide jobs for some vets out of my own pocket,” he says. “Others just come out here to walk and relax. And we bring a bunch of guys out here for the deer hunting each fall.”

Taking care of his fellow vets remains important to McCormick. “I’ve told a bunch of my battalion commanders that just because you retire doesn’t mean that you can retire your responsibilities,” he says.

Those responsibilities weigh heavily on McCormick, especially when someone desecrates his memorial to a fallen comrade.

“I’m about half tempted to mount an ambush, catch this guy red-handed if he returns, and whip him with the bamboo he was attempting to steal,” says McCormick, trying to laugh off a growing sense of outrage.

Killblane says McCormick was no one to mess with. “Before he turned his life over to Christ, if he threatened to kill you, he probably would have,” he observes.

Killblane is writing a book about convoy ambush case studies that teach convoy commanders how to fight ambushes and a history of convoy operation during the war in Iraq. He says McCormick was one of the most instinctive warriors he has seen. “His philosophy was to punish the enemy to deter him from attacking any more convoys,” he says. “Of all the ambushes I’ve researched, it’s McCormick who stands out the most.”

The days leading up to Easter Sunday, 2004, prove Killblane’s point.

First, McCormick and his gun truck crew ran into their first ambush on March 22 when they turned back into the kill zone. That was when the lieutenant was wounded in the calf earning his second Purple Heart Medal.

Despite his protests, McCormick was sidelined while his platoon left on a mission without him.  Then on April 7, after the radical young cleric Muktada al Sadr called for a jihad against coalition forces, McCormick and picked up an all volunteer crew to provide security for a convoy hauling supplies to Baghdad International Air Port (BIAP), where the convoy ran into an L-shaped ambush with a sniper positioned on an overpass in front of them.

McCormick was hit in the chest, with his body armor absorbing the blow. Still he was knocked backward off his feet, while a second round hit his machine gun ammunition belt, sending shrapnel into his hand, says Killblane.

 “Remembering what a Vietnam veteran told him, when insurgents approached, McCormick fired a flare at them and they scattered thinking it was a rocket,” Killblane says. “That gave him enough time to re-load his machine gun, and then he splattered the sniper who was then about to shoot his driver.”  

The next day, Good Friday, all hell broke loose as the enemy ambushed any convoy trying to get in or out of BIAP. The next day, all convoys were shut down but the 1st Cavalry Division, which drew its supplies from BIAP was running critically short.

On Easter Sunday, McCormick and his crew volunteered to escort a convoy hauling critical ammunition to the Green Zone, just eight miles away, but about noon a sea of insurgents began storming their compound with the intent to breech the wall and kill the hundreds of truck drivers parked behind it.  “When his Humvee gun truck mounted the ramp overlooking the wall, all he could see were Iraqis in black.” says Killblane. “For five to ten minutes, McCormick and his crew held off the attack by themselves and then for the next forty minutes only a dozen truck drivers defended the wall.”

Thirty minutes after repelling that attack, McCormick and his emotionally exhausted crew provided security for an ammunition convoy running a gauntlet eight miles to the Green Zone. Since the commander broke his convoy into four smaller convoys, the gun trucks had to make the dangerous run four times.

“They were driving thin-skinned (not armored) trucks, and they got hammered while other armored gun trucks turned tail and ran,” says Killblane. “On the next run, they got ambushed again, but McCormick turned his gun truck into the enemy and it seemed to work because there was less gunfire on the next convoy, and the fourth run was almost incident-free.” By the end of the day, four of the five crew members in his gun truck had been wounded and would still follow him anywhere, says Killblane.

For the ambush going into BIAP, McCormick was awarded the Bronze Star. McCormick later earned another Bronze Star, but has been nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross for his action on Easter Sunday and the Silver Star for his leadership during 40-minute firefight on January 30, 2005. “Lt. McCormick’s warrior spirit and leadership under fire saved hundreds of lives, protected critical military cargo and inflicted heavy enemy casualties upon a ruthless and determined enemy,” said the citation nominating McCormick for the Distinguished Service Cross, which is still pending review.

“His actions were probably the most heroic of any truck driver in Iraq,” Killblane says. “He was grossly overlooked.”

After he left Iraq, McCormick says he spent a year and a half in the VA’s poly-trauma unit in Huntington, W.Va.  “I couldn’t do anything for myself,” he explains. “I slept with a loaded revolver and drank heavily and smoked like a freight train. I had panic attacks and I couldn’t find anything to bring me down, so I did a lot of heavy drinking. When I had nightmares, they terrified my wife, and she’d go out and sleep on the couch.”

Buying the farm between Huntington and Point Pleasant helped.

“This is a place where vets can come and realize that we’re finally at peace,” he says. “This place has so much more healing power than anything you get out of a bottle, either alcohol or pills.”

But McCormick’s 13-year-old son Jimmy had been watching him closely. “You’re really upset about that memorial, aren’t you Dad?” he asked, just as I was leaving.

McCormick emailed this resolution to me the next day: “I said yes it did son, very much so, because we planted it for all fallen troops and to see that just brought back a wave of bad memories on how people died that I personally knew. To me when I saw it, I could hear the crying and see the death all over again. It was simply a violation in the worse way to me, and since it is well know what we do out on the farm I couldn't help but see it as an intentional slap in the face of not only me but every Gold Star family I know.

“My son is very much in tune with his feelings and looked at me and said. ‘Let’s plant another one, Dad, in the same spot and let me do something to honor your friends.’ He walked the length of that stream picking out all the stone to lay the walkway, he planted the plant again and asked me to help him with the cross, and truly he did most of that as well. I asked him what if someone tears it up again. He said well then we will just come back and build again only this time bigger. On Sunday, he bought flower seeds and next weekend we will plant them around the outline of the cross, again his idea. Got to love that boy.”

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

more...

Subscribe to Invisible Wounds

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.