GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — “I was doing seasonal law enforcement in Yellowstone National Park, and then 9-11 happened.”
James Purcell, the South Rim’s district law enforcement ranger, remembers going to the recruiter’s office the very next weekend after the World Trade Center towers were attacked by terrorists. After looking at each branch in detail, Purcell decided that the Army best matched his skill set.
He was soon deployed to Iraq for two tours of duty in 2002 and 2004.
Purcell became a military policeman, which he says can be a bit of a misnomer.
“I didn’t actually do any policing while I was there because we were in such heavy conflict,” Purcell said.
Instead, he was directly assigned to an infantry unit — the 17th Calvary out of Fort Hood, Texas. He and others performed rear security for the infantry pushing through the combat zone — guarding their backs as they keep moving forward.
When he wasn’t acting as rear guard for the infantry, Purcell was assigned to provide security for the supply convoys crossing into the country from Kuwait, which provided food, water and other essentials to forward bases.
“We would drive down to Kuwait, grab a shipment of supplies and then escort them back up into wherever they were needed,” he said. “We had a train of about 10 water (trucks) because there was no clean water in the country at that time.”
Because supply convoys could be vulnerable to attack, Purcell escorted the convoy with four military police vehicles — one to lead the convoy, two others to bring up the rear and one to sweep the roads looking for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). If the convoy came under attack, Purcell said, the lead vehicle would continue escorting the convoy while the others attempted to suppress the attack.
The convoys often came under direct fire, and it was on one of those occasions that Purcell was injured when his vehicle rolled over an unspent shell converted into an IED. His truck was blown up by the bomb, but thankfully, Purcell said, all of his crew survived the explosion.
“We were all able to go on with our careers,” said Purcell, who was a team leader and sergeant at the time of the incident. “One of my soldiers is still in the Army, and the other soldier who worked for me at the time is an Austin (Texas) police officer.”
After five years of active duty, Purcell retired from the Army as a sergeant, finishing up his tour in South Korea. To finish out the remainder of his time, he spent three more years in the Army reserve. He joined the Criminal Investigation Division, which he compares to being a detective for the Army.
“It was a lot more policing work,” he said. “We did all the investigating for crimes involving service members.”
Before coming to Grand Canyon, Purcell worked road patrol at Natchez Trace Parkway in Jackson, Mississippi. He also spent three years at Padre Island National Seashore.
“It was a really great experience (at Padre Island),” he said. “It was super fun working with fishermen and saving a lot of turtles.”
After Padre Island National Seashore, Purcell came to Grand Canyon, where he started working in the Desert View subdivision of park law enforcement.
“It was nice to be a little bit away from what we call the flagpole,” he said. “You have a little more anonymity. It felt more like a true national park over there, very serene, beautiful and quiet. There’s not as much tourism, no hotels.”
Purcell now works in the village subdivision, and he said the hustle and bustle of tourism, hotels and parking issues definitely has an impact on how he and other officers perform their duties.
Looking back at how he used to perform his law enforcement duties as a seasonal employee at Yellowstone, Purcell said he’s changed a great deal because of his time in the Army. He said he is able to read people and situations much more easily than he was able to before his military service. He’s much more aware and hyper-vigilant, he said, but also much more mature.
For Purcell, one of the most defining characteristics is pride in his service, both to the United States and to the National Park Service.
“I’m super proud that I was able to serve our country, and that I can continue to serve,” he said. “There’s so much pride in serving in the military, and to be able to continue that pride in the park service, it’s a really great thing.”