McKinley Wood grew up in Atlanta with his parents and older sister. After college, McKinley’s father took over the family business and became a master electrician, following in his own father’s footsteps. His mother was a nurse. The consistent message in his family was that education was the path to success. He spent quite a bit of time as a child at his grandparents’ house. His grandmother wanted him to read and play musical instruments, and when he was over at her house he read the Encyclopedia Britanica, especially the C-D volume because he was intrigued by the American Civil War. The siege of Atlanta was especially interesting and, since his part of Atlanta was more rural in those days, he played in the woods where some of the action had taken place. In high school, he found his niche in JROTC (Junior ROTC), but he did not do well in math and science. He applied to West Point and was offered a slot at the Prep School (USMAPS) at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, where he continued to struggle academically, but he found camaraderie with his classmates. When he reported to West Point for R-Day, he remembers being amused when the Cadet in the Red Sash tried to intimidate him. Throughout Beast though, he “felt like [he] belonged” and enjoyed the physical challenges. Academics continued to challenge him until he learned to put himself “in the moment” and he learned how to learn. He enjoyed the physical aspects of the Academy and loved contact, gravitating to boxing, grappling, and rugby. He was on the track team for two years and competed in short sprints. While in Airborne school as a Cadet, he broke his ankle on a jump, which convinced him not to branch Infantry. He picked Armor as a branch because when he was at Ft. Knox for T-CAT (Third Class Combined Arms Training), he realized that he fit comfortably in the tank turret, and the recoil of the cannon firing really impressed him. He was in the Officer Basic Course at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, on September 11th, 2001, and remembers everyone gravitating to the TV screens. After the Basic Course he graduated from Scout Platoon Leader’s Course (SPLC) before being assigned as a Platoon Leader in 3rd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment in the 3rd Infantry Division. He quickly formed a relationship with his Platoon Sergeant, SFC Anderson, and describes the camaraderie he formed with his crews, identifying different relationships among the different ranks or positions and how they changed with time and his increasing experience. He then describes leading his platoon into combat on April 6-7, 2003, in the push to take Baghdad. For his actions that day and the subsequent three weeks of fighting, he was awarded the Silver Star. He recalls meeting classmates on the front lines and how comforting that was. He describes coming across an unsuspecting enemy and engaging him with the co-ax machine gun. After that, enemy Soldiers came from everywhere. He felt that he could not stop moving, or the American advance would bog down, and his tanks crossed a bridge that was not rated for their weight. When he saw enemy sappers, he knew that he should have expected the bridge to be rigged with explosives, but the Iraqis failed to set the demolitions charges properly. During the stability operations that followed, he used the Arabic he learned at West Point. After his time on Active Duty, he transitioned and served in both the National Guard and Army Reserve while working at Bank of America. He describes what both of those components bring to the fight, and how the soldiers serving in those units have to balance their civilian life with their military careers. At the end of the interview, he reflects on what West Point means to him.
For his actions, McKinley Wood received the 2023 Nininger Award. The award is named in recognition of the heroic actions of Second Lieutenant Alexander R. Nininger, USMA Class of 1941. Nininger was serving in the Philippines with the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. He was killed near Abucay, Bataan on January 12, 1942, and posthumously received the Medal of Honor. The Nininger Award is given to an exemplar of heroic action in battle.