BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Distinguished Service Cross – second only to the Medal of Honor in military decorations – has been awarded to U.S. Army Col. James H. Coffman Jr. for his role in leading Iraqi Special Police Commandos through a five-and-a-half hour battle against terrorists trying to overrun an Iraqi police station.
Flanked by the Commando unit Coffman fought with, U.S. Army Gen. George Casey, commander of Multi-National Forces – Iraq, pinned the cross and eagle medal on Coffman’s body armor during an Aug. 24 ceremony at Adnon Palace in Baghdad’s International Zone. Iraq’s Minister of Interior, Bayan Jabr, and a number of other high-ranking Iraqi and Coalition leaders also attended the ceremony.
“It’s humbling to me, to be in the company of heroes,” Casey said, noting Coffman’s extraordinary heroism in the battle that killed 12 Iraqi Commandos and wounded 24. “Such exemplary conduct is a great example to Iraqi Commandos and to all American Soldiers and warriors.”
Coffman, 51, is a senior adviser to Iraqi Special Police Commandos with the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq’s Civilian Police Assistance Training Team. He accompanied a Commando Quick Reaction Force with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Iraqi Special Police Commando Brigade on Nov. 14, 2004 to help a Commando platoon under attack in a Mosul, Iraq police station.
As the QRF approached the station, it was besieged with rocket-propelled grenades, small arms fire and mortar rounds. Coffman and the Commandos fought the terrorists for four hours before help arrived. When the initial firefight killed or seriously wounded all but one of the Commando officers, Coffman rallied the remaining Commandos while trying to radio for assistance, according to his award citation.
“Under heavy fire, he moved from Commando to Commando, looking each in the eye and using hand and arm signals to demonstrate what he wanted done,” the citation said.
When an enemy round shattered his left shooting hand, damaging his M4 rifle in the process, Coffman bandaged it and continued fighting with AK-47 rifles he collected from Commando casualties until each ran out of ammunition. He also passed out ammunition to the uninjured Commandos with the help of the remaining Commando officer; when all that remained were loose rounds, Coffman held magazines between his legs and loaded the rounds with his good hand.
When a second Commando unit arrived four hours after the fight began, Coffman led them to his position and continued to fight, refusing to be evacuated for treatment until the battle was over. Not long after the Commando reinforcements arrived, air support and a Stryker Brigade Quick Reaction Force were on hand to assist to assist in the battle.
Coffman supervised the evacuation of injured Commandos and led another group of Commandos to the police station to make contact with the Iraqi Police inside. Once the additional air and ground support elements began attacking buildings the enemy forces were hiding in, Coffman went back to his initial position to check on the injured Commandos and then agreed to be evacuated for treatment. Twenty-five terrorists were killed and dozens injured.
“Col. Coffman, the blood you shed will never be forgotten,” said Jabr, the Interior Minister. “We, the forces of the [Ministry of Interior] and the [Ministry of Defense] will continue to fight until we defeat terrorism. Right will always defeat wrong.”
In remarks during the ceremony, Coffman praised the Commandos for their service and commitment to defending freedom in Iraq. He also said he viewed the ceremony as a tribute to the Iraqi and Coalition forces that have fought, bled and died together.
“Third battalion, I am truly, truly honored to stand here with you today and remember your courage and bravery last November and in all the days since then,” Coffman said, facing the Commando formations. “It has been an honor to fight with you.”
Jabr and Iraqi Maj. Gen. Adnon Thebit, commander of the Special Police Forces, each presented Coffman with medallions.
Prior to the ceremony, Coffman said surgery repaired the shattered bones in his hand but it still isn’t back to 100 percent. In the months he’s had to reflect on the battle, Coffman said his focus continues to be on the courage and exemplary performance of the Iraqi Commandos he fought with.
“I’m very proud of them, and more importantly, they’re proud of themselves,” Coffman said. “The next day, they were back out on patrol – after suffering 30 to 50 percent casualties. That’s pretty amazing. I’m not sure American units would do that. That says something about their resilience and their ability to maintain morale. They certainly mourned their losses, but they got back into the fight right away. I don’t think you can ask much more of people than that.”
After nearly two years in Iraq, Coffman is preparing to return home in early September. He’ll return to a Pentagon job he held prior to deploying to Iraq in December 2003, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.
After celebrating two wedding anniversaries in Iraq, Coffman is looking forward to returning to his wife of 21 years, Patricia White, and their two grown daughters.
Coffman was able to call his wife from the medical aid station before he was evacuated to tell her what happened, and that he was okay. When he learned he would be awarded the DSC – which came as a surprise – Coffman said there was some debate about whether the ceremony should be held here or at home, where his family could attend. He opted to have it done with the men he fought with.
“In my mind, it’s more for the Iraqis,” he said.
Coffman doesn’t see himself as a big hero, just a Soldier who did what he had to do to keep himself and his men alive. He believes there are plenty of heroic deeds going on in Iraq – particularly in the military and special police training teams – that go unrecognized.
“There are equal acts out there. This one just got written up,” Coffman said. “I would like to see more people get written up.”
Coffman may downplay his actions, but those who work with him on the Commando adviser team describe him as a passionate, tough, and no-nonsense warrior.
“At first, I thought he was crazy,” laughed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Carl Paris, who arrived to the team shortly after the battle. He recalled Coffman greeting him with a large bandaged hand, saying ‘Hey, guess what, kid,’ and then giving him a blow-by-blow description of the fight.
“I have nothing but admiration for him,” Paris said. “He is the example for me being here. A lot of people talk the talk, but he walks the walk. He has a real Soldier’s mentality – cut through the B.S. and get the mission done, no matter what it takes.”
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Tlaloc Cutroneo feels honored to have been able to serve with Coffman and appreciates the trust Coffman placed with him.
“He has allowed me to be privy to major Iraqi developments and security solutions,” Cutroneo said.
“I have sat in on meetings as his battle buddy, not as merely a subordinate. To be referred to as his battle buddy means quite a bit.”
Coffman enlisted in the Army in 1972 in Great Barrington, Mass., where he grew up. The tangible benefits – learning a skill and college tuition – drew him into the service. But gaining an understanding of what being a Soldier means kept him in uniform for more than 30 years.
“The idea of selfless service and patriotism takes over,” Coffman said. “I like that.”
Coffman has a Bachelor of Science degree in Chinese Area Studies from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. and a Master of Science degree in National Security Affairs from the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif. He was also a U.S. Army Fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and attended the Boston University Overseas Program for Master of Science in International Relations in Vicenza, Italy.
His military career has taken him from Fort Bragg, N.C.; Tampa, Fla. and Washington, D.C. to more far-flung locations like Vicenza, Korea and Gelnhausen, Germany. Along with the Distinguished Service Cross, Coffman’s other awards include the Bronze Star, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, the Combat Infantryman Badge, Expert Infantryman Badge, and Special Forces and Ranger Tabs.
Coffman will have to retire in three years, but he figures he still has one more overseas tour in him. He isn’t sure it will be in Iraq, though.
“If asked, I would find it hard to say no,” Coffman said. “I have a lot of respect for a lot of the Iraqis. They have a tough time ahead of them.”
Coffman doesn’t believe democracy can be fast-tracked here. The United States had to work through several years of contentious issues – including a Civil War – before it enjoyed a stable democratic government.
“It’s easy when you’ve had a couple centuries of experience with democracy to overlook the difficulties in getting that,” Coffman said. “I can’t think of a nobler endeavor than to help 28 million people achieve it.”
By U.S. Army Sgt. Lorie Jewell