Former N.C. senator serves tour in Iraq

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Editor’s note: Cal Cunningham represented Rowan and Davidson counties in the N.C. Senate from 2000 to 2002. This story about him is reprinted from NC Lawyer.
By Russell Rawlings
North Carolina Bar Association
At 35 years of age, Cal Cunningham is still a card-carrying member of the Young Lawyers Division. Even so, it’s hard to imagine that he will ever encounter anything in the legal profession to compare with what he experienced last year.
But don’t bet against it. As a former member of the General Assembly and recent recipient of the Bronze Star, the bar has obviously been set pretty high for James Calvin Cunningham III.
Take the U.S. Army Reserves, for example. When he deployed from Fort Bragg with the XVIII Airborne Corps last year to serve in Iraq, Capt. Cunningham did so as the senior trial counsel in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate. He was responsible for oversight of the Army’s largest court martial jurisdiction which included supervision and training of 27 lawyers and 50 paralegals.
His 11-month tour of duty included the monumental task of bringing military contractors to justice, marking the first court martial of a civilian since the Vietnam War.
“Prior to deploying, I was at Fort Bragg for a mock deployment exercise,” said Cunningham, who has since returned to full-time practice with Kilpatrick Stockton in Winston-Salem. “The first question they brought to the lawyers is what do you do with a contractor who commits what on the face appears to be a crime?
“We began studying, got out the books, called out and found maybe a couple of laws you could use, but we could not figure out who was using them.
“About two weeks later, Blackwater shot up an intersection, so what had been a hypothetical became a very real problem: How do you hold contractors accountable?”
Blackwater guards were accused of opening fire and killing 17 unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007. Cunningham followed the news closely. Who in Iraq was responsible for coordinating the prosecuting of contractors?
Three months later, he was.
“We got to Iraq and discovered that no one owned the problem,” Cunningham said. “So that became part of what I was doing over there. I think everyone at the senior leadership level in the Army in Iraq concluded that we needed to retool to better manage the contractors.”
The accountability initiative was no small task. There were some 190,000 contractors working in Iraq, a number that increased as the number of soldiers serving in Iraq decreased.
“They were doing everything from sweeping floors to routine maintenance to cooking, guarding towers and bases, transportation, driving armored transports across Baghdad. It ran the gamut.”
The situation amounted to a public relations nightmare for the Army and the United States.
“We had decided as a country that it would be our policy and Iraqi policy that none of them could be prosecuted by Iraqis,” Cunningham explained. “So basically we were telling the world that the U.S. would take care of it, and we weren’t.
“What Blackwater and the other contractors were doing that was much less visible than the incident in Nisour Square was giving us a terrible black eye around the United States and the Middle East.”
Under Cunningham’s leadership, the tide of negative publicity began to turn last year. Eighteen cases involving contractors were referred back to the U.S. Department of Justice, and for the first time in decades, courts martial were being used to prosecute contractors.
It was Cunningham who handled the first court martial of a U.S. civilian since 1968, a case involving a contractor who stabbed an Iraqi citizen. The contractor pled guilty and the case is now up on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
And Cunningham is home following an eventful tour, one which lasted longer than he had originally anticipated.
“Early on I had hoped that it would not be a full year,” Cunningham said. “Interestingly enough, within the unit there are a lot of active and reserve Soldiers. We in the reserves ended up doing a year while many of our active duty peers ended up doing four to six months.
The extended deployment, Cunningham said, coincided with the centennial celebration of the formal establishment of the U.S. Army Reserve in 1908.
“The National Guard goes back to the founding of the country, but the actual professional Army Reserve was founded 100 years ago. It was established in large part for professionals, mainly medical personnel, and the JAG Corps fits that model very well.
“It is comprised of a group of specialized attorneys who can be tapped in times of need. When we went over there, the four reserve attorneys were of the same rank as many of the active component, and we had many years of practical experience that we think were very vital to the effort.”
The fact that Cunningham was named senior trial counsel speaks volumes about the contributions of the reservist attorneys, as do the contributions of the other lawyers and paralegals serving in his unit.
“There is a story here in the success of the reserve attorneys and their ability to integrate into active components and make a meaningful contribution.”
This was Cunningham’s second time being called to active duty. In 2005, he served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney with XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.
“My wife reiterated over and over again that if I would do a bad job they would not ask me to go [to Iraq], and if I did a good job I would get called up [again]. As with every other family, it is very, very difficult to be apart. She never volunteered to be a single mom and the kids never volunteered to be without their dad.
“I tried to honor their sacrifice by making as much of a contribution as I could while I was there. It’s regrettable that the service was needed but I can say in retrospect that it was a positive experience.”
The Bronze Star Medal, according to the Department of Defense, is the fourth-highest award presented by the U.S. Armed Forces for bravery, heroism or meritorious service.
In recognizing Cunningham for “exceptionally meritorious service to the United States,” it was stated that he was sought out by all of his commanders, including the commanding general, “for his sound judgment, superior communications skills and legal expertise.”
“Capt. Cunningham’s actions,” the documentation later states, “are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service and reflect distinct credit upon himself, the Multi-National Corps-Iraq and the United States Army.”
A native of Winston-Salem, Cunningham grew up in Lexington where he continues to reside. He and his wife, Elizabeth, a graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Law, have two children, Caroline, 7, and Will, 5.
Cunningham is a graduate of the University of North Carolina and the UNC School of Law who also holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. He served in the N.C. Senate in 2001-02.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who is also a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, recently recognized Cunningham on the Senate floor upon his return from Iraq.
“They each had their own perils,” Cunningham said when asked to compare his service in Iraq to his experiences in the General Assembly. “I was there the last time we had an economic downturn and had to cut deep into the budget, so I do not envy the legislators now. They will be hearing from constituents far and wide.
“But at least no one was shooting at me while I was in the Senate.”