By Joe LacdanFebruary 19, 2020
WASHINGTON -- It had been nearly 15 years since Lt. Gen. Bruce Crawford had last seen her, and Maj. Crystal Ernst had been a young specialist back then. But Crawford recognized his former troop from Iraq immediately and remembered her name when he saw her again at the Command and General Staff College.
"Watching (then Lt. Col.) Crawford and the way he looked out for the entire battalion, he was very personable," Ernst said. "He knew me personally even though I was only a junior Soldier. He probably had 600 Soldiers, but he knew (us)."
Crawford, now the Army's chief information officer and G-6, has spread his influence throughout the ranks. Of the 14 generals in the Army's Signal Corps, half have been mentored by him, including Maj. Gen. Maria Barrett, the commanding general of the Army's Network Enterprise Technology Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and Brig. Gen. Robert Edmonson, G-6/chief information officer at Army Forces Command.
During a 34-year Army career, Crawford has mentored hundreds of Soldiers, from cadets and privates all the way up to colonels. He speaks at high schools and advises students on their career path. For this mentoring, he has been named the 2020 Black Engineer of the Year -- only the second Army officer to win the award.
"Truly an honor," Crawford said of the award. "I think it says a lot about what BEYA is about and the enduring legacy of BEYA. I think the greatest thing they do is they create the awareness that becomes the pathway to opportunity for our young people, especially in the area of STEM (science, engineering, technology and math)."
Ernst enlisted in the Army in 2001 and deployed with the 82nd Signal Battalion during the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom and then again to Ramadi, Iraq. As a young specialist in the unit, she remembers battalion commander Crawford greeting each Soldier and making time to know them.
Crawford later wrote Ernst a recommendation letter for Officer Candidate School. She had originally planned to serve only five years, but said Crawford encouraged her to become an officer.
Ernst now serves as the executive officer for another Soldier Crawford has mentored through the ranks, Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, the J-6 at U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.
Rey met Crawford when Rey served as a battalion commander in 2012. Crawford helped advise the native of the U.S. Virgin Islands and taught him to value the abilities of the Soldiers he commands.
Crawford also taught him humility, Rey said. He turned to Crawford when he once struggled to work with a passive-aggressive leader. Crawford said to humble himself for the sake of the unit's larger goals and told him not to appease the leader, but voice his support.
Rey said Crawford can recall nearly every Soldier he has commanded.
"In the military, there's two things that people like," said Rey. "One is their name. If a leader remembers your name and remembers what you have done for them, that is a driving force. They will go anywhere and do anything for you.
"He appreciates what people have done for him and he can recall the time when that person did it for him. And that resonates with everyone else. That's rare. His leadership, his drive, they respect him for it."
Rey said Crawford not only offered him advice, but helped him land his current position at U.S. Central Command by writing a recommendation letter and speaking to Army leaders at the Pentagon.
Rey said that Crawford sets standards for the troops he commands in the way he communicates and his hard work. His ability to inspire his troops, Rey said, helped pave the way for him to be selected for the prestigious BEYA award.
Rey added that Crawford's award also marks a victory for the Army's massive modernization efforts.
"General Crawford has been a driving force," Rey said. "It shows the Army is actually leading the way in modernization of their networks and putting it as a major priority. That's really good to know (Army leaders) understand that the backbone of our services is the network itself. And the modernization that he is actually driving is going ensure that we win the next war."
The annual BEYA conference, in some respects, parallels Crawford's accomplished career.
2020 marks the conference's 34th meeting, and Crawford, 57, has entered his 34th year in the Army. BEYA creates opportunities for students of color to realize their untapped potential in the areas of science, technology and engineering, just as that opportunity was created for Crawford one spring, nearly 40 years ago in Columbia, South Carolina.
The eldest of four children, Crawford had considered going into carpentry at age 18 to provide for his family, instead of going to college. Crawford was working at a local restaurant as a dishwasher.
Then he met Clarence Hill.
Hill encouraged him to attend South Carolina State University in nearby Orangeburg, where Hill served as an instructor. A couple nights a week, Crawford would hop in Hill's car ride 50 miles southeast to the SCSU campus where he learned about the school's engineering program. Hill convinced Crawford to attend the school and join its ROTC program with the promise of providing for his struggling family.
Then during the summer of his junior year at SCSU, Crawford attended ROTC advanced camp. There some of the best cadets in the country competed for active-duty commissions and job placement within the Army. "That was the proving ground," Crawford said.
During the middle of the camp, Crawford learned that he had performed so well during fitness tests, land navigation and marching drills that he ranked within the top 1% of the 4,600 cadets who attended the camp.
Crawford eventually graduated from SCSU as a distinguished military graduate, commissioning as a signal officer in 1986. He would later earn two master's degrees.
Army leaders often mention mentorship, a word preached to Soldiers of each rank. Early in his career, Crawford learned its value as a young lieutenant stationed in Europe toward the end of the Cold War.
His first battalion commander, then-Lt. Col. Fred Stein, asked his cadets to read a book called "Common Sense Training: A Working Philosophy for Leaders" by retired Lt. Gen. Arthur S. Collins. Stein asked his 30 lieutenants to read the book and write a two-page essay.
Only one lieutenant completed the assignment -- Crawford.
From Stein, Crawford learned the importance of being technically competent and following instruction. Crawford also learned to take advice from leaders who came from a different background.
LEADERS ARE GROWN
Perhaps a turning point in Crawford's career came after the U.S. victory in Operation Desert Storm, while he was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Crawford had deployed as a signal officer during the conflict and now wanted to advance his career. The young captain had already completed Army Ranger School training and wanted to join an elite unit such as the 82nd Airborne. "I wanted to go to where the best-of-the-best live," he said.
But his leadership at the time encouraged him to interview for a company commander position under then-Lt. Col. Velma Richardson. Still wanting to join an airborne unit, Crawford reluctantly agreed to the interview. "That turned out to be the best thing that could possibly happen to me," he said.
Richardson, who went on to become the Signal Corps' only female African-American brigadier general, helped shape the leader Crawford would become. Richardson also helped found the BEYA program.
His time as a commander under Richardson helped launch the remainder of his 34-year career, a career that had humble beginnings in the Deep South.
A young African American who grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Columbia, South Carolina, he learned from his grandparents' and mother's example. Neither of his grandparents, Hayward and Gracie Spigner, could read or write. Growing up without his father, Crawford saw Hayward, a carpenter, as a role model who worked hard to help provide for Crawford and his siblings. Gracie worked as a nurse's aide.
"But they understood the importance of hard work and they understood the importance of education," Crawford said.
His mother, Sarah, couldn't always be home to care for him and his three siblings as she worked the night shift as a nurse's aide at a home for the elderly.
"I watched her lead as a young person and not have our circumstances overcome us," Crawford said.
Gracie Spigner died of cancer at only 52 years old in 1982. She never got see her eldest grandson rise through the ranks of the Army or head the Army's $12 billion technology enterprise.
But she witnessed her grandson start the collegiate career that would point him toward that path, at a time when most young men in his Columbia neighborhood pursued blue-collar professions.
"Success has many fathers and many mothers and many parents," Crawford said. "The first point that comes to mind is those who enabled me along the way -- the people that came to my life at a time when young people come to a proverbial fork in the road."
One determined leader at the right time can make a big difference, he said.
For instance, BEYA creates connections among minority students with educators and STEM professionals much like then-high school senior Crawford connected with a young PhD candidate at South Carolina State.
"(The BEYA award) says a lot about the contributions of Soldiers over the years," Crawford said. "This award is much bigger than Bruce Crawford. I think it's part of an Army story that needs to be told."