Lessons from Iraq

  • Published
  • By Major Allison K.W. Johnson, who interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham

A Purple Heart Recipient’s Perspective

This article was written by Major Allison K.W. Johnson, who interviewed Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham on July 6, 2023.

(IED: improvised explosive device)


A Team Comes Together: Training for Combat

“Live out the training.” That is what came to mind when then–Captain Wendy Kosek [now Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham] came to in the smoky haze of the blast that rocked the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle convoying her from Camp Victory, Iraq to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Union III on 21 August 2009. Contingency skills training took over, giving a sense of the familiar in a warzone. “IED! IED! IED!” the gunner yelled, her voice clarifying what happened as Captain Buckingham pushed off her legs a large cooler that had landed on her and her fellow JAG, then–Captain Maureen Wood, during the blast. “Our vehicle was inoperable when it got hit … we were in a convoy, we are going to be cross-loaded. My mind went back to our training.”

Air Force Contingency Skills Training (CST) at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, thousands of miles away from Baghdad, Iraq, consisted of basic combat skills training, weapons training, and battlefield first aid.

Air Force Contingency Skills Training (CST) at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, thousands of miles away from Baghdad, Iraq, consisted of basic combat skills training, weapons training, and battlefield first aid. For an entire day, the group practiced convoying in the New Jersey woods along dirt paths. Each High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) in the convoy had a job. If one got “hit” in practice, a team from one vehicle would set up perimeter security, and then the other team would assist the downed vehicle team in safely exiting from one HMMWV to load into another. The assisting team and uninjured trainees would tend to those Airmen deemed “injured” by the instructors. Sometimes, the medical assistance would be delivered under fire from the opposing force instructors, who shot chalk pellets at the trainees. Over and over, the training seared how to react to a convoy attack into muscle memory.

“We went as a team,” Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham recalled.

A group of [judge advocates] and paralegals deployed. We were from the same JASOC[1] or a class after ours. We went through CST together in May, and then we all went home for two to three weeks, then we deployed. It was nice because we got to know each other.

When Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham arrived in Baghdad, Iraq in June 2009, she and the group stayed at Camp Victory, the large base in the capitol, for several days while waiting to receive her FOB assignment. She was assigned as a Detainee Operations Attorney for Task Force 134 and headed to FOB Union III.

FOB Union III: Detainee Operations Mission

Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham explained:

I worked two different missions, the Jurisdiction Transition Cell [JTC] and the Central Criminal Court of Iraq [CCCI], trying detainees. There were three different detention facilities in Iraq. In 2009, we were moving from security-based detention under U.S. custody to warrant-based detention under Iraqi custody. We weren’t able to try all the cases with the pending wind down [of troops from Iraq]. [At JTC] we were processing evidence packages to get the Iraqi government to issue a warrant. If no warrant was issued, the person would be released. [At CCCI] I did a handful of court hearings and evidentiary hearings with Iraqi judges.

There were three of us assigned to JTC …. It was a very new mission, so there was a big push at that point in time [to process the cases]. There were 15,000 detainees and each of us had 5,000 cases.

While working the detention mission, Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham lived daily life on the FOB as one of the few female Airmen at that location.

It was one dirt street … the building we worked out of was the bombed-out Ba’ath Party house that was hit by a JDAM[2] and left a huge hole in the middle. The outside of the building was fine. It was a unique work location.

The office was a mix of every service, and the base, although small, had coalition forces working together across language and cultural barriers with potential security threats.

The work brought Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham to the courthouse for the Central Criminal Court of Iraq on multiple occasions. “The courthouse was in the Red Zone.” Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham recalled.

Baghdad, Iraq
Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham and her teammates. Photo courtesy of Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham.
We put on bulletproof vests, weapons loaded. We traveled there in uparmored SUVs. We had a security detail whose entire purpose was to protect us. We have all of this support [as U.S. troops], and the Iraqi judges had one security guard each with a handgun.

The stark difference in force protection made her think of the risk one Iraqi Army major had taken when he reported a kidnapping plot to the U.S. and Iraqi authorities and later testified against the kidnappers. “He took a huge risk in coming forward. His family could have been killed or injured, and he decided to do the right thing,” Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham said. The kidnapping plot was the one case that stood out to Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham.

There were four individuals involved, and one of them was the major. Three individuals wanted to kidnap a U.S. soldier, and the major was supposed to be giving them base access…. He told U.S. and Iraqi forces what was going on. Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham recollected:
I saw a bigger insight into Iraqi courts, how hard it is to get evidence in a dynamic warzone environment where people don’t stay in the same place.

The U.S. and Iraqi forces had the major work with the potential kidnappers to foil their plot. By the time the kidnappers came onto base, Iraqi security knew what type of car they would drive and what they looked like. The kidnappers had taken steps to prevent them from being identified, taking out the sim cards in their phones. The car had been lined with plastic. The three individuals were arrested. Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham said:

The hearing I worked, two of them were brought before the Iraqi judge, who wanted additional evidence. They claimed they were beaten in Iraqi custody…. The case stood out from a process standpoint because of how slow those cases are. I thought, why is this not an open and shut case? We had the major’s testimony and they actively took steps to do this.

It showed me the process piece in Iraq, and what the judge was concerned with, wanting to know if there was maltreatment by Iraqi soldiers…. I saw a bigger insight into Iraqi courts, how hard it is to get evidence in a dynamic warzone environment where people don’t stay in the same place.

While Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham didn’t know what ultimately happened in the case with those individuals, she thinks of the major and his courage to come forward.

21 August 2009

With the team of judge advocates and paralegals in Iraq, Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham had traveled across the Red Zone back to Camp Victory to brief the Deputy Judge Advocate General, Major General Charles Dunlap. When the brief was over, she caught a “commuter” convoy that transported people from Camp Victory back to their FOBs. A fellow judge advocate, then–Captain Maureen Wood, climbed in the MRAP with her. There were multiple different personnel from various services on their ride, as the MRAP seated eight passengers, a gunner, a driver and vehicle lead.

About fifteen minutes into their trip, an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP)[3] detonated next to Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham’s vehicle. “As soon as we were hit, there was a couple seconds where people were coming to …. It was disorienting, things were in different places [from where they had been sitting] …. The gunner called out ‘IED! IED! IED!’ and it was helpful.” Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham recalled. She remembered thinking “Oh that’s what happened, we were hit by a bomb.”

The windows of the MRAP cracked in the blast. A water cooler bolted into the side of the MRAP landed, bolts and all, in her and Captain Wood’s laps. Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham said.

There was water all over me … people came from the back of the MRAP and asked if I needed help. I had shrapnel wounds, and I could lift my Kevlar helmet off my head because a piece of shrapnel had cut my chin strap and went into my jaw. I could see into my open leg wound. I tried to stand up on my own, which was a terrible idea.

Her mind went back to her training, knowing the people in her vehicle would have to be cross loaded into the next MRAP in the convoy. There was an Army major sitting diagonally across from her who was badly injured. They both had to rely on the training of others, and the military coming together to take care of each other and save each others’ lives.

Getting out of the vehicle was challenging. A security perimeter had been established by other teammates in the convoy, including multiple judge advocates and paralegals. Fortunately, there was no secondary attack. “I was flat on the ground outside the vehicle …. Our driver put a tourniquet on my leg and bandaged some of my wounds … [he] assured me ‘I’ll be back for you,’” recalled Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham. The team loaded the injured Army major into the back of the next MRAP carefully. Then it was Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham’s turn to be loaded.

On the ride back to Camp Victory, those military members who were stable enough to provide aid in the crowded MRAP continued to take care of those who were more severely injured in the blast. Captain Wood tended to the Army major. He had entry and exit wounds in his left leg and was bleeding profusely. He was going in and out of consciousness. Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham remembers that then–Captain Wood was running out of medical supplies, and she offered up her own untouched IFAK[4] for him.[5] They arrived at Camp Victory, where both were triaged.

You can overcome when something bad happens and there is recovery.


Road to Recovery

At Camp Victory, Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham was assessed and had a second tourniquet applied to her leg. A tourniquet has a time clock in which a leg could be lost, and above all else, she did not want to lose her leg.[6] Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham was flown by Black Hawk helicopter to an American-run hospital in Baghdad with the Army major. They both underwent surgery. “When I was leaving the triage facility, I asked how bad my leg was. The doctor said ‘It’s broken in at least two places.’ I thought that wasn’t that bad. I realized later, he didn’t take an x-ray to see that, he literally looked at my leg. But that was a good response from the smart doctor,” she recalled.

In Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham talked to her parents and General Dunlap. She stayed in Baghdad for three days, undergoing several surgeries to stabilize her leg so she would be able to medically evacuate to a hospital. She needed care from a hospital with better surgical technology, as a larger piece of copper shrapnel from the bomb lodged itself two millimeters away from her femoral artery.

All my Air Force colleagues came to see me before I left. It was powerful on both ends. It was good for them to put eyes on me … to see me and to know I was going to be okay, and I would recover from this …. It was important for that time to say goodbye .... I kept in contact with people who were forward deployed after. You can overcome when something bad happens and there is recovery.

Then began the time clock to base hop back to the United States for additional surgery. There were multiple trips on military medical airlifts—C-17s, C-130s, and KC-135s—taking Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham from Iraq back to the United States. From Balad, Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany, to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, then to Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, and finally to San Antonio Military Medical Center (SAMMC), Texas—it was a whirlwind. At every step of the way, there were judge advocates there to greet her. At Landstuhl, Colonel Norine Fitzsimmons, her staff judge advocate from her home base of Little Rock was there, and JAG Corps personnel came down to visit from Ramstein Air Base. At Scott, then–Brigadier General Steven Lepper, Air Mobility Command Staff Judge Advocate, and the attorneys and paralegals on the base greeted Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham on the flightline. The warmth and support from the JAG Corps did not stop there. Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham’s parents received many phone calls from across the Corps and the Air Force expressing their support for her family and her recovery.

The medical team at SAMMC saved Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham’s leg. Her right tibia was shattered below the knee and needed several more surgeries. She spent eight months total at SAMMC—four months in a wheelchair, and four months learning to walk again. Perseverance defined her recovery, even years later: Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham later went on to have a perfect score on her physical fitness test in 2019, her first since the injury.[7] Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham said:

We had a lot of support from the Air Force and the JAG Corps. I appreciated that, and my family appreciated that. I carry with me how much it meant to have people truly care about you and how you were doing.


For the Corps

Everyone from 21 August 2009 in the MRAP lived, including the Army major. Training was so critical to these military members coming together that fateful day, and saving the lives of two of their fellow service members. When reflecting on deployment, Lieutenant Colonel Buckingham offers these words for us:

Getting the opportunity to go deploy is incredible. It’s the unique thing from any other civilian job …. In an austere environment, you get to yes despite the circumstances. You build camaraderie and teams. [Deployment] is a defining opportunity for the JAG Corps and the military. You want to perform, and outside of your AFSC, you are first and foremost an Airman in the Air Force.

Take training seriously. Know how to defend yourself and others …. Have strength and calm under severe pressure and distress. What is unique to the military, we go through struggles where it is life and death. Never lose sight of it …. You are wearing a U.S. military uniform, and as far as terrorists are concerned, you are a target. You have to know how to get yourself out of a bad situation. You have to know culturally what is going on. Educate yourself. There are a number of us who have purple hearts from Iraq or Afghanistan. It affects our community, and you want to be prepared.
Getting the opportunity to go deploy is incredible. It’s the unique thing from any other civilian job.

About Lieutenant Colonel Wendy S. Buckingham

Lieutenant Colonel Wendy S. Buckingham

Lieutenant Colonel Wendy S. Buckingham, USAF

(B.A., University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana; J.D., University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana) is the Individual Mobilization Augmentee to the Staff Judge Advocate, 56th Fighter Wing, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. She is a recipient of the Purple Heart and the Air Force Combat Action Medal for her service in Iraq.
Edited by: Major Allison K.W. Johnson (Editor-in-Chief), Major Victoria H. Clarke and Major Andrew H. Woodbury
Layout by: Thomasa Huffstutler


[1] Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course (JASOC) is the initial skills training for new attorney judge advocates in the Department of the Air Force.
[2] Joint Direct Attack Munition
[3] Wikipedia, Explosively Formed Penetrator, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Explosively_formed_penetrator (last accessed July 12, 2023) (discussing the use of EFPs against coalition forces in Iraq as an effective weapon against MRAP vehicles due to its convex copper shaped warhead’s ability to penetrate and disable armored vehicles by being mounted on crash barriers at window-height at strategically placed chokepoints to force the vehicle to slow down and absorb the blast and subsequent shrapnel impact).
[4] Individual First Aid Kit
[5] Wendy Buckingham, Littler Talks – Wendy Buckingham on Her Military Service, Littler, https://www.littler.com/littler-video [click the Littler Talks tab to see a list of Littler Talks] (May 9, 2019, 1:30 PM)
[6] Id.
[7] Id.