In Memoriam: Retired COL J.W. Thurman

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COL J.W. Thurman
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COL J.W. Thurman in Vietnam with 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.

The Armor and Cavalry community lost a legend Feb. 24, 2015, as retired COL Jerry W. Thurman passed away in Elizabethtown, KY, at age 68.

A Distinguished Service Cross recipient from Vietnam, “J.W.” led with an unmatched passion for Soldiers and an undaunted love of Soldiering.

An outpouring of sentiments came from many current and former leaders, clearly indicating the impact Thurman had across the Army.

“One of COL J.W. Thurman’s most notable and lasting accomplishment is the mark he made at the Armor School, where his inspired leadership was instilled in a generation of officers and [noncommissioned officers],” said BG Scott McKean, current Chief of Armor.

“J.W. was a giant among us with a big heart for Soldiers and an irrepressible fierce will to win,” said retired GEN Fred Franks. “He lived that legacy, touching us all, and leaves it now for this and future generations to continue.”

Thurman enlisted as an infantryman in 1966 and was commissioned as an artillery second lieutenant in May 1967 after graduating Officer Candidate School. Thurman completed Rotary Wing Aviation School and subsequently deployed to Vietnam in 1968, where he served as aviation section commander of 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, part of the legendary Blackhorse Regiment.

“As a peer I watched J.W. often with awe,” said retired GEN Montgomery Meigs. “(He was) scrappy, wonderfully humorous, able to get the absolute most out of his people, a Soldier whose tactical and operational instincts and awareness I admired. J.W. was that kind of leader you always wanted on your side. If he gave you a negative spot report, you’d better listen.”

While deployed to Vietnam, Thurman frequently demonstrated extraordinary heroism in action while conducting reconnaissance missions. Thurman was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions Dec. 30, 1968, when he and his crew were ambushed on the ground after landing to secure enemy prisoners. According to his citation, he “signaled his co-pilot to take off in the helicopter so it would not be hit by enemy rounds.” Armed with a pistol, he continued to engage the enemy on the ground until reinforcements arrived. Once he secured a landing position, “he and his crew returned to their ship, from which they continued to provide covering fire and aerial observation for the ground troops,” landing two more times to evacuate casualties.

Thurman also received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Air Medal with “V” Device, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart with two oak-leaf clusters and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Palm while serving with the Blackhorse regiment in Vietnam.

“I join all the Armor leadership in saluting this courageous warrior,” said Duke Doubleday, civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. “We were bound together as young Blackhorse lieutenants in 1968-69 and remained close thereafter. His legacy has been deeply felt across the years, and he’ll be cherished by all who knew him.”

Thurman transferred to the Armor Branch in 1971, where he served in many command and staff positions, including commander of 3rd Squadron, 12th Cavalry Regiment, in Germany from 1984 to 1986. In 1987, Thurman was assigned to the Armor School at Fort Knox, where he became the chief of tactics.

“I was convinced when he was in charge of lieutenant training at Knox that if he jumped in the Ohio River, the entire class of lieutenants would have jumped in after him,” said retired MG Tom Tait, a former Chief of Armor. “He was one of a kind and will not be forgotten.”

Among his lasting achievements at the Armor Center was the development of the Scout Platoon Leader’s Course. Now known as the Army Reconnaissance Course, it remains a premier training course for all Cavalrymen. Today, the top graduate from each ARC class receives the J.W. Thurman Award. Thurman is also a member of the Field Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Sill, OK.

Thurman was laid to rest Feb. 27 at Kentucky Veterans Cemetery-Central in Radcliff, KY, with full military honors. In attendance were several fellow Vietnam Blackhorse veterans and other senior Army leaders.

“One of my earliest memories of the Army was COL Thurman holding court at Fiddler’s Green during our Armor Officer Basic welcome social,” said COL Patrick Donahoe, Maneuver Center of Excellence chief of staff. “I was in a throng of young lieutenants gathered around this big gruff man spinning stories of life in the Cavalry. We were enthralled. While entertaining us with war stories of Vietnam and pseudo-war stories of the East-West German border, he was all along passing on lessons of leadership.”

Survivors include his wife, Donna Thurman of Elizabethtown; daughter and son-in-law, Jerri Christine and Christopher Berry of Palm Coast, FL; son and daughter-in-law, Commander James Patton and Beth Thurman of Fort Worth, TX; brother and sister-in-law, retired GEN James D. and Dee Thurman of Salado, TX; four grandchildren: Justyn Christine Berry, Austyn Nicole Berry, William Porter Thurman and James Gray Thurman; two great-grandchildren; the mother of his children, Ellen Hack of Palm Coast, FL; brother-in-law, Bruce Johnson of Elizabethtown; and two nieces, Jaime Brown of Fort Riley, KS, and Laura Johnson of Elizabethtown.

“(Thurman was) a great Soldier with the heart of a lion for the enemies of our country and big enough to love his troops and comrades,” said retired GEN Gordon Sullivan, a former chief of staff of the Army.

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