U.S. Military Academy 2001 graduate earns Nininger Award for valor on the battlefield

By Eric S. Bartelt PV Managing Editor - October 31, 2023
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The U.S. Military Academy and the West Point Association of Graduates recognized Lt. Col. McKinley C. Wood, USMA Class of 2001, as the recipient of the 18th annual Alexander R. Nininger Award for Valor at Arms during a dinner ceremony Oct. 26 at the Cadet Mess Hall.

The award is intended to further the ideals of West Point by presenting an exemplar of heroism in the profession of arms to the Corps of Cadets. This year, Wood is bestowed the honor of the Nininger Award for his personal bravery and leadership during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, regarding him as a representative of all West Point-commissioned officers who have heroically led Soldiers in combat. 

The award’s namesake honors 2nd Lt. Nininger, USMA Class of 1941, who deployed to the Philippines and was attached to the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts during World War II. During the first few months of the war, Nininger voluntarily joined another company because his unit had not yet faced combat.

Following his subsequent act of heroism near Abucay, Bataan, on Jan. 12, 1942, Nininger was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first recipient to be awarded this distinction during World War II. 

Nininger joined Company K of the 57th Infantry Regiment while the unit was being attacked by an enemy force with superior firepower. Despite enemy snipers positioned in trees and foxholes who were successful in stopping a counterattack, Nininger repeatedly forced his way to and into the hostile position.

Though exposed to heavy enemy fire, he continued his attack until he was killed after pushing alone within the enemy position. When his body was found after the recapture of the position, one enemy officer and two enemy soldiers lay dead around him.

“Under intense enemy fire and hand-to-hand fighting, 2nd Lt. Nininger repeatedly forced his way into enemy territory and continued to attack,” said Superintendent Lt. Gen. Steven Gilland, during his opening speech of the Nininger Award ceremony. “Despite being wounded three times, he successfully destroyed several enemy groups and snipers, before the enemy struck him down.”

Gilland said that Nininger’s actions that day inspired members of his unit to rally together and counterattack, and, ultimately, it gave Gen. Douglas McArthur the time he needed to organize defenses and retake vital positions in the Philippines. Those actions and courage under fire earned Nininger the Medal of Honor.

“Like 2nd Lt. Nininger, this year’s (Nininger) honoree, Lt. Col. McKinley Wood, showed tremendous courage and extraordinary heroism on the battlefield as a platoon leader during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, exposing himself to intense enemy fire to direct his platoon during the attack to isolate Baghdad,” Gilland said. “Tonight, is a celebration of courage, but I believe tonight is also a celebration of character – what we say and do, how we act and react, especially in those moments of crisis and adversity.

“Courage is a choice, and leaders like Alexander Nininger, McKinley Wood and countless others throughout history chose courage because of their extraordinary character, embracing the values and ideals that define us as Army professionals and members of the Long Gray Line – choosing to live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence in all we do,” Gilland added. “So, tonight, we celebrate Lt. Col. Wood as an exemplar of courage and character, and inspiring us as we, in turn, aspire to their example.”

After Gilland’s speech, Wood took to the podium to speak to the Corps of Cadets about his experiences as a cadet and as an officer on the battlefield.

Originally from Atlanta, Wood, a former Systems Engineering major who was a three-year member of the Army West Point Track team, is currently a diplomacy fellow of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Among his many assignments, he most recently served as the battalion commander of 3rd Battalion, 304th Infantry Regiment, providing weapons and physical confidence training to the Corps of Cadets at West Point during summer training.

Wood began his speech declaring he was “truly honored” to be the 2023 Nininger Award recipient. He was shocked to receive the phone call that he was receiving the award as he was returning to his apartment in D.C. after a “mentally challenging” day at Georgetown with his cohort of diplomacy and statecraft fellows.

“Knowing who Alex Nininger was in our Long Gray Line and his willingness to give his last full measure, I thought I was getting someone else’s notification call,” Wood said. “I was reassured that I was the correct person, which to my surprise also showed me that I was out of practice with my tactical proficiency of the Armor corps. Armor officers should never be surprised, ever – I’ll leave that to the infantry.”

Amidst a rumbling of gasps and laughter prompted by his joke, he set the direction of his speech toward three key insights he aimed to impart. With humility, he shared “there’s so many other great … people who lead Soldiers every day than this one who’s standing before you. I am only their humble servant.” 

“The first lesson, or the first thought, I would like to give you, especially the Corps of Cadets, is what foundational traits helped me graduate from West Point, serve as a leader and follower in our Army, and become successful in corporate America,” Wood said. “Second, I will give you my definition of never quitting versus not knowing how to quit. And, finally, I’ll briefly summarize the events that surround why I’m here with you tonight, the events of April 2003.”

Wood said he would give the cadets some advice on the “simplified rules of combat … where we’ll leave here in great spirits and a little wiser.”

“Being at West Point takes an exceptional person,” Wood said. “The closer you get to graduation; you realize that one of the most valuable lessons you can absorb from the academy is how to learn. Every expert has a beginning. Every genius in your calculus class has experienced that blank stare on a term end exam. I did – before and after joining the Corps.

“Everyone in gray here tonight will develop into an avid learner and develop the skills to learn new things,” he added. “As a plebe and yearling at West Point, I struggled with academics … and as I developed with my class and pursued the dream of graduation, I began to understand the trick for my success.”

He spoke about how figuring out techniques, tactics and procedures (TTPs) made sense for his brain. Learning by reading and mimicking were not for him – he had to live in the moment, live in the problem set, live in the book.

“Being there in the moment made the experience of academic absorption real,” Wood said. “When I better understood myself and how I understood the world, it was the moment I learned how to learn … I was determined to look within myself, take a long, hard, deep look and being honest by evaluating my facts and my truths. It was not a matter of memorizing functions, poetry, rules or grammar – it was placing myself in the moment.”

He illustrated the importance of being in the moment with specific examples from World War II, where battleships with 16-inch guns were able to hit targets 20-plus miles away. How? Differential calculus. He then vividly described the harrowing Normandy invasion on D-Day in June 1944, when American and Allied troops were storming the beaches, juxtaposing it with the mental image of himself in a classroom at West Point figuring out the firing solution for the cannons so he could double-check the rangefinder, underscoring the invaluable critical thinking skills honed there.

“One mile short is fratricide. On target, I get a pat on the back. One mile too long, I just wasted a shell the size of a Volkswagen Bug on nothing,” Wood said. “I know that’s a nerdy example, but it worked for me, and it placed me in the moment. Even today, I placed myself in the shoes of the ambassadors of the state department officials and foreign area officers I study as a fellow at Georgetown.

“I want to understand why they made the decisions they made in the past, what made them make those decisions so that I can understand why we in this room go to war as the final step of diplomacy,” Wood added. “I try to understand their thought processes, so I won’t make the same decisions or a better one in the future. Deciding best to implement the elements of power and avoid a shooting war – and bring someone home.”

Wood mentioned that until he figured out how his mind worked, he spent a couple of summers taking Summer Term Academic Program (STAP) classes and then once he found his footing and thrived, he reached the Dean’s List his final two years at the academy.

The second lesson is the difference between never quitting and not knowing how to quit.

“Sometimes, there are some things worthy in life like graduating from West Point that are so desirable and you want so bad that quitting willingly will hurt your soul – and that’s how I felt,” Wood said. “I didn’t know how to quit. When I was a rock as a plebe and yearling, I didn’t know how to quit.”

During a podcast recently, he told a classmate that same thing but was asked, “What was his motivator?” He said his wife, Judit, says it is both a blessing and a fault of his.

“I’ll just keep going and going until I figure it out, or until (someone) tells me to stop,” Wood said. “The non-blessing part is when I aggravate (someone) to the point where (he or she) yells at me and says, ‘No, you need to learn how to quit.’

“I would argue that 2nd Lt. Nininger displayed the same trait,” Wood added. “If you know the story of Alexander Nininger with the Philippine Scouts, he went on multiple occasions into the heart of the enemy so that his Soldiers, his friends, would live. He sought (the enemy’s) destruction through firepower, willpower, maneuver, so that his comrades-in-arms would survive.

“When the U.S. finally recaptured the position, they found him dead but surrounded by the enemy,” Wood concluded. “They found out he didn’t know how to quit either. He just didn’t know what quitting was … (and I) only took a fraction of the dedication that 2nd Lt. Nininger displayed in the Philippines.”

Wood said that his “don’t quit” attitude allowed him to attain his diploma and commission. Then turning to the Corps of Cadets in the room, he urged, “You (should) attain that prize as well because the Army is waiting for you because we need your moral, ethical and values in our force so we can continue to win our nation’s wars.” 

The last thing he wanted to impart to the cadets was an explanation of the simplified rules of combat, which led to his story of April 6-7, 2003, in Baghdad.

Panther Rules of Combat, winning the war in Baghdad

The rules of combat he learned were first taught to him by Jeffrey R. Sanderson, who was the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment battalion commander at the time Wood was in Iraq.

That battalion was called “Panther,” and the Panther rules of combat were – one, see the enemy before they see you. Two, make contact with the smallest element possible. Three, fire distribution and control.

On April 5, 2003, Wood’s tank platoon received orders to establish a blocking position in northwest Baghdad to facilitate the capture of the Baghdad International Airport. As Wood explained, there were two problems in solving this order for his platoon.

“We were south of Baghdad at the time. That means we had to work,” Wood said. “The other problem was that the only way to attack looking at the terrain was a penetration. Now, if you think about a heavy task force doing an attack and a penetration, the majority of your firepower is not concentrated forward. You’re moving and shooting and it’s hard to protect. This was the only way to get to our objective. We were attacking prepared defenses of militia, regulars and Republican Guard.”

When the time came, Wood said to his Soldiers, “Orders are orders, let’s rock and roll.”

As Wood said, the first rule of combat is to see the enemy before they see you. His tank platoon moved forward in column formation to attack on April 6. His Alpha section of the platoon moved approximately 500 meters in front of the enemy. As they were rolling forward, they came upon American Scouts, who were 19 series (Cavalry scouts).

“We approached them, and I was nervous until I saw the platoon leader of the scout platoon – he was a classmate of mine,” Wood said. “I got off my tank and we hugged each other. He pointed behind him and said, ‘I prepared the battlefield for you. Go get them.’ I said, ‘I’ll try.’ We crossed their lines and everything in front of us was weapons free.”

As they proceeded forward, the first indication of the enemy as they approached the city was an enemy soldier with his rifle slung across his back, and he was walking away from them.

“The first rule of combat has been achieved. See the enemy before they see you. I’m about to let hail rip open,” Wood said. “As we engaged the soldier with our machine guns, all his buddies start streaming into the street like it was a party. The enemy combatants were surprised the heavy battalion was bearing down on them.”

As his platoon continued to slice its way through the enemy’s defensive line, the second rule of combat started to apply.

“We dictated the tempo of the fight since we caught the enemy with their eyes closed,” Wood said. “We made contact with the smallest element possible. Well, unfortunately, for me that day, the smallest element was me and my wingman.”

 As the vanguard of the column and the smallest unit engaging the enemy, Wood's position enabled other company and battalion commanders to strategize. This allowed them to maneuver the rest of the battalion toward the enemy without becoming decisively engaged with the entire task force.

Wood’s Alpha section was engaged with enemy troops and tanks at this point. He said as an armor officer, battle site is 1,500 meters, but he never engaged his laser rangefinder because they were already in their line of sight.

“There was no fall of trajectory of the rounds. They were that close to us,” Wood said. “In the city, tanks don’t fight that well. The tank commanders and me, we were out of the hatch.”

Wood’s troop were using their rifles and M-68 grenades to keep the enemy soldiers at bay and off their tanks while the gunners, with the command of “fire and adjust” continued to engage the enemy as they saw fit.

“Now, there was an occasional soldier who tried to climb on my tank,” Wood said. “I saw him first and then he saw my rifle and then he saw his God. Through all that … (I certainly know what) flapping out in the wind feels like. It felt awesomely lonely as we were developing the situation for the commander to initiate more forces to us.”

Then, the final rule of combat came into play with fire distribution and control. Wood remarked that it came in the form of lead tanks to help engage the enemy.

“As I said before, we’re engaging battle site ranges and below, so fire distribution is not servicing the target more than once – not shooting at the same thing twice knowing that you can destroy it and it’s dead,” Wood said. “Fire distribution and control is so that you can prolong the pain on the enemy because you preserve your ammunition and your fighting power. This allowed the task force commander to reach the objective for the inevitable hasty defense.

“That night we were attacked on three sides of our perimeter. The enemy came at us,” Wood continued. “Fire distribution and control at the local level was seen as one tank senses a target, tells the other tank where it is, and the other tank kills it. We did that all night.”

One of his gunner’s played music over a loudspeaker to keep them awake through the night while, at the battalion level, fire distribution and control kept Wood’s group alive until morning – until the A-10s were able to come in and rain fire.

“We fought for our survival. My tank commanders, the gunners, every leader – I’m so proud of them that night,” Wood said. “People call me the hero, and while I was receiving the Silver Star by the brigade commander, I said, ‘sir, you smoked something the enemy was smoking. (Command) told us where the enemy was when I shot. You gave me the orders. I was the middleman.’ He chuckled, laughed and said, ‘You’re welcome.’”

Wood concluded his speech by reminding the Corps of Cadets once more about never quitting and expressed his hope that they all share this same trait.

“Our Army fights and wins wars,” Wood said to the Corps of Cadets. “I hope the last point of the rules of combat, you never have to execute that … but you know it will happen, and it happens only because our enemies don’t know how to quit either and that’s why we need you in the force.”

Following his speech, First Captain Cadet Martayn Vandewall presented Wood with a cadet saber and expressed appreciation on behalf of the Corps of Cadets, stating, “Your perseverance and courage in battle is truly an inspiration for all of us.”