Baltimore native Cornell W. Gilmore had been in Iraq only five days Friday morning when the Black Hawk helicopter he was flying in began taking enemy fire in the skies above Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Gilmore, 45, was headed for a landing at a nearby U.S. base as part of a brief mission as sergeant major for the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Moments later, the chopper crashed onto an island in the Tigris River and burst into flames, killing Gilmore and the five other soldiers on board. Gilmore's boss, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Romig, was watching from a second Black Hawk. The general knew he had lost an important part of his command.
"He was one of the most dynamic leaders I ever met," Romig said last night. "He had this charisma with soldiers -and really with everybody - that just warmed your heart. He could go into a room of soldiers and just light the place up."
"That was part of his job, visiting the troops and keeping their spirits up," Gilmore's wife, Donna, said yesterday. "Of course, he knew it would be dangerous going to Iraq, but he went without hesitation. He was a soldier's soldier."
It was the second time Gilmore had been to the Persian Gulf region during wartime, having been stationed there for months in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. This time his mission was to have lasted a week, as part of a required stop by the JAG command to make sure the corps' 395 troops in Iraq were keeping legal operations running smoothly.
As sergeant major, Gilmore was to touch base with the paralegals, who account for about half of the JAG's Iraq contingent. Traveling with him and the general was the JAG's chief warrant officer, Sharon T. Swartworth, 43. She, too, was killed in the crash, along with the Black Hawk's four crew members from the 101st Airborne Division.
"We now have a huge hole in the heart of the JAG Corps," General Romig said. "But, having said that, they were both great soldiers doing what they love. In my 32 years in the military, I've never seen two as good as those two."
Gilmore, a big man with a big smile, was known for his take-charge friendliness outside the military as well, approaching all with his exuberant trademark line, "Greetings, how are you?"
"He said that to everyone, from generals on down," his wife said. "He was well-loved and well-liked."
Friends and family members enjoy telling of how he introduced himself last year to his new church, Shiloh Christian in Stafford, Va., arriving with his son, Cornell Jr., 18, in the middle of a choir practice.
"No one was at the piano, so he sat down and began playing," said Sandy Gilmore, a sister-in-law from Randallstown. "Then his son joined in. He just goes right into a place and takes over. And he had done the same thing at his earlier churches."
The choirs took to him quickly, and at each church, Gilmore became the minister for music. That was only one way in which religion came as big a part of his life as the military was.
"He was also a soldier of God," Sandy Gilmore said.
Gilmore grew up on Terra Firma Road in Cherry Hill, the youngest of 11 brothers and one sister. He was a talented athlete and musician, learning to play the guitar and the piano, and was a graduate of Baltimore's Southern High School.
In 1980, he graduated from the University of
Maryland, Baltimore County with a degree in sociology and a minor in criminal justice. The following year he enlisted in the Army, completing basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and advanced infantry training at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind.
After that, he led the itinerant life of a career soldier, stationed in Louisiana, Germany, Kansas, again in Germany, Hawaii and Washington state before being assigned to Army headquarters at the Pentagon.
Along the way, he rose from private to his current rank, and his wife proudly pointed out that he was the only African-American in the JAG Corps' leadership. He was also a devoted family man with two children, Cornell Jr., and daughter Donita, 19.
Family members said services will be held this week but that arrangements weren't complete. They began gathering yesterday at Gilmore's home in Stafford, and late in the day the general dropped by to pay his respects.
"He used to say to me, 'Sir, don't worry, I've got your back.' And he did," Romig said. "He was a great soldier."