Back in fight: warfighter returns to Army as CERDEC civilian
December 11, 2008
"When it's your time to go, it's your time to go - you never know when it's gonna be. It's not my time to go yet, I've cheated death a bunch of times, but the bottom line is I still get to work with soldiers."
The sarcastic, light-hearted nature of Curtis Crawford is that of a man who is not phased by much. His words to live by are "mind over matter," a philosophy he adopted during his years in the 1st Cavalry Division and 101st Airborne Division.
Crawford has rubbed elbows with the grim reaper on more than one occasion. Having spent the better part of his mid-thirties in the Middle East, the Army veteran has deployed to Iraq twice, been hit by multiple improvised explosive devices and shot three times.
Following his last battle-wound in 2006, the two-time Purple Heart recipient recently traded in his camouflage for a quality assurance position with the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center's Product Realization Directorate. At age 40, Crawford isn't slowing down and looks forward to this next chapter with the Army.
"I'm starting a brand new career here," Crawford said. "I am 40 years young and to be honest with you, I don't feel 40."
As part of his transition to a civilian job, Crawford is enrolled in an eighteen-month training course for PRD. Crawford spent six months training in Texas at TexArkana College and will finish his training at Fort Monmouth, N.J.
"I said 'alright if I can't stay in the front line and run with my Soldiers, I can stay in the back and give them support,'" Crawford said. "I am looking forward to it. I have done multiple tours in Iraq and with the boots on the ground experience I have, I can take that and run with it here."
Having used some of the same equipment he will be working with at CERDEC, Crawford hopes to be able to use his experience to relate better to the warfighter.
"I am able to gel with other Soldiers; whatever product that we're able to put out here- being able to launch it I can be a representative from quality. I know what the lingo is and am able to mesh with them a little better," Crawford said.
Crawford started working with the Army in 1987 but wasn't deployed until 2003. A biology major at California Pacific Union College, Crawford enlisted in the National Guard as an infantryman before he worked for Tyco Corporation for 11 years as a fire inspector, safety inspector and contract manager.
"When 9-11 hit I gave up my civilian side and put on the (green) suit again and decided to deploy to Iraq," Crawford said.
During Crawford's first deployment he worked in a personal security detachment at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. Crawford was shot for the first time in Fallujah, but his bullet proof vest prevented any serious injury.
"On my first deployment we hit two IED's, nothing major they were small IED's because that was the beginning of the war," Crawford said. "But we got in some serious fire fights in Fallujah."
After his first deployment, Crawford was granted 12 months of stabilization in the U.S., but was then given the opportunity to lead a team with the 101st Airborne Division. Crawford came home from his first deployment in April 2005 and returned to Iraq that October.
"To me, getting to the 101st Airborne Division was a dream come true," Crawford said. "I always wanted a unit of that caliber. I had a really good fire team, I couldn't ask for anything better."
Crawford was in Iraq for only a month before he was shot a second time. Crawford was posted on top of a hood looking for a sniper that had been in their area of operation. The sniper found Crawford first and fired a shot from 250 meters out that grazed the side of his helmet, hitting the windshield and shooting shrapnel across his face, blowing up his eardrum.
His close friend and fellow Soldier, Ryan Feldman, was victim to a similar injury, a result of the same sniper's second round of fire. He and Feldman were both awarded Purple Hearts and have matching Purple Heart tattoos on their right forearms.
"He (Feldman) had a team and I had a team and we always had our teams together wherever we went," Crawford said. "There's a reason why we did what we did on our right forearm, it's because when you salute the flag you salute with your right, when you salute an officer that you work with, you salute with your right."
With Feldman at his side during the award ceremony at Fort Campbell, Ky., Crawford, his wife of 13 years, his six children and his father were recognized for their sacrifice. For Crawford, the support of his friends and family throughout his military career has been critical in his success.
"The support has been fantastic from my dad and from my wife," Crawford said. "My dad retired from here -- out of Fort Monmouth and has been supportive of my trips going over there."
Crawford's father, Chuck, worked at Fort Monmouth for eight years as a financial analyst. Being raised in a military family has helped Crawford implement a strong sense of values within his household.
"My family understands what I was doing and the reasons I was doing it," Crawford said. "They knew if Dad wasn't coming home it was for a good cause. They knew the reason why I went -- it's because I want my kids to be able to walk freely down the street, walk across to go to a ball game without worrying about getting hit."
When Crawford was shot for the third time in January 2006, the bullet missed his vest and went through his chest and out his back. Unsure if he would live, Crawford borrowed a cell-phone from someone in Baghdad Hospital to break the news to his wife.
"She broke down at first- I just told her 'I've been hit and I'm on my way to the operating room,'" Crawford said. "I told her 'I love you, but I don't know what's going to happen.'"
Initially, Crawford was supposed to fly to Germany for surgery but because at one point his heart stopped beating and his vitals crashed, he had to be stabilized in Baghdad. Once he was stable, Crawford went to Germany and then to Walter Reed Medical Center where he was on life support and stayed up until his recovery.
Crawford had to relearn a lot of processes, including walking, and he was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Still, Crawford was disappointed he couldn't get back into the fight in Iraq.
"When I was at Walter Reed, I wanted to get back in the fight so bad," Crawford said. "Due to the circumstances in Iraq, we needed every single body we could possibly get but physically I could not do it at all, I was in a great deal of pain."
When Crawford describes his experience with physical therapy, he notes that the physical therapy room was down the hall and up the stairs. Between the long walk and the attached chest-tube that he described as "the size of a garden hose coming out of my chest into a drainbag," Crawford felt pity for himself, an unfamiliar emotion for the large, boisterous man.
"The breaking point for me, because for awhile I was starting to feel sorry for myself, was when I came walking into that physical therapy room, hobbling and I saw a guy that got hit by an IED. He was sitting there on the physical therapy table and he lost his legs from his knees down and he lost his arms from his elbows down and here I came walking in with my legs and my arms and fingers fully in tact but I was able to walk. But that guy on the table, was playing catch with his son and I was thinking 'God, I have it easy.'"
Never the less, Crawford wouldn't trade his experience in the military. "If I had the opportunity to do it all again; rewind, I would do it in a heartbeat."
Crawford's unflinching devotion to his life as a Soldier is due, in part, to his great appreciation for the U.S. Army.
"From the time I got hit on the battlefield, my Soldiers went to work on me: set up security like they're supposed to, got a bird in there, got me put into Baghdad," Crawford said. "I have been given the utmost opportunity to stay in the Army."
A former high school football player, Crawford's experience with the military fulfills his love for "working with people and working with teams." Similarly, his children, particularly his four boys, are already following the footsteps of their father.
"They've been talking military since day one and I would support them 110 percent," Crawford said. "They want to play football and go into the military, so they're looking at West Point. I will be at every game."