Friday, September 27, 2019

Corpsman down, CPO Holly Crabtree's fight for life

"Today we celebrate serving with a hero"

I was drawn to this photo of Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Holly Crabtree's retirement, taken at Naval Base Bremerton, Maine. The Navy medically retired her on August 23, 2012. She was still in the process of recovering from a sniper attack in Iraq on April 15, 2010. Chief Crabtree is saluted by her colleagues as she departs the retirement ceremony, walking with the help of a cane. At the time of her retirement, she was a 14 year veteran, 32 years old. Her story is something to behold.

This photo gives you a close-up of CPO Crabtree standing at the retirement with SFG Leroy Petry, USA, an Army Ranger and recipient of the Medal of Honor for valor in Afghanistan. While in Afghanistan, the enemy shot him through both legs. Despite that injury, he saved fellow Rangers by picking up and throwing a live grenade, which blew off his right hand. He wears a prosthetic. He heard about Crabtree and decided it would be his honor to be there.In the opening photo, you can spot him in the front row wearing camouflaged fatigues and a beret, saluting with his prosthetic right hand.

Following her basic training and basic hospital corpsman school, the Navy selected her to attend the 12 month Navy's Independent Duty Corps (IDC) School. This is a special school designed for highly motivated Hospital Corpsmen. Graduates earn one of the most respected Naval Enlisted Classifications in the Medical Enlisted Community. That qualified her for a wide variety of jobs, one of which was with Special Warfare units such as the Navy SEALs. Graduates are considered "The Best of US Navy Medicine."

Crabtree was then sent to the Navy's Expeditionary Warfare School. It trains corpsmen and other specialists to work with special operations teams.

She received the Expeditionary Warfare (EXW) qualification certificate from the Navy SEALs. This in turn qualified her to wear the Expeditionary Warfare Specialist Badge and serve with the SEALs.

Petty Officer 01 (PO1) Crabtree was then assigned to Iraq, joining Task Force West (TFW)/TF Dagger, Colonel John Mulholland, USA in command.

At the time, most US forces had already left the western Anbar province. The Iraqis were largely in charge. However, TF Dagger was there. It was a multinational task force, mostly US special forces, with British and Australian special forces forming the bulk of the TF.

TF-Dagger was assigned the western part of Iraq and was tasked with neutralizing the threat from Iraqi SCUD tactical ballistic missile launchers. Dagger was also to conduct reconnaissance and intelligence gathering operations in the area.

Crabtree was said to be providing medical support to SEAL teams. This photo shows here prior to a mision.

In addition to that, she also served on cultural support teams that assisted Green Berets, Rangers and SEALs while on combat operations. She was fluent in Arabic which was a great advantage. The Tampa Tribune indicated that Crabtree was selected to go on SEAL missions because of her language skills.

Viewed broadly, the females on the Cultural Advisor Team (CST) were embedded with the special forces on a patrol or a raid. Their primary job was to interact with Iraqi women during missions.  An instructor for CST training described their role this way:

"You are CSTs and you have a very particular job to do on the battlefield. You have to de-escalate whatever situation you are drawn into, and engage with the women and children. But we are not at war to pass out blankets and hugs. I need you to find out where the bad guys are, as quick as you can.”

Crabtree and an female Army Soldier were on the mission of April 15, 2010.
The photo shows an Army female engagement team in Afghanistan. You get the idea.

These women had to be physically fit and ready to take on the punishment of battle and difficult environments.

At the time, TF Dagger was operating near Ramadi, Iraq. Ramadi had earlier been the scene of fierce and bloody battles. It was still the site of contention when PO1 Crabtree arrived in 2010.

She was on a combat patrol mission with SEAL Team 6 (ST-6) near Ramadi on April 15, 2010.The main task for this patrol was to collect intelligence, especially that intelligence which would help locate enemy leaders. However, given Ramadi's history of violence, all hands had to be ready for anything at any time.

She has remarked:

“When we walked into a village, they would know I was medical because I had the big pack."

That "big pack" probably revealed to the enemy that her job was to provide medical care to the villagers, which was something that the villagers would appreciate, and which was something the enemy would not. The Navy corpsman shown in this photo is preparing to leave camp on patrol; you can see the "big pack" holding supplies he might need in the field. It has a distionctive look.

On April 15, 2010 the enemy ambushed Crabtree's patrol. An enemy sniper struck her with a shot that pierced her helmet near her left temple, entered her skull, and came to rest behind the ear.

She says she remembers being hit, and would say later:

"The first thing I remember after I woke up is that I was still in the Humvee. I was embarrassed. I thought I passed out from the heat."

But then she could see her arms were covered in blood. 

She was evacuated right away to a field hospital. When she got there, her case was classified as "Hope Trauma," which I understand meant little hope for recovery. She endured a six hour surgical operation and was not expected to live through it.

Incredibly, she survived and was stabilized. She was then evacuated from Iraq to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland. 

It took her about three months in the hospital before she became fully aware of what was going on around her. She had paralysis on the right side, and suffered a traumatic brain injury which affected her memory, speech and motor skills. She commented:

"Things were tough for a couple of years. I wanted to snap my fingers and get better. I was going through depression so bad as well as trying to get better so hard I was hurting myself … I stopped eating. I wasn't hungry. The only thing that kept me going was my daughter, Leah."

I won't go into the detail here, but I should note that Holly, like so many others, knew she had enormous challenges in front of her. It was natural for her to fall into deep depression and a feeling of defeat.

She was then transferred back to her unit's home base at McDill AFB, Florida for physical rehabilitation at the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital. 

This is a photo of Holly Crabtree with her sister, Sarah, in the hospital. Crabtree had been getting seizures every week or two since she was shot. She has commented,

"They (seizures) surprise me," meaning she could not tell they were coming. She reportedly had had two strokes, partial paralysis and epilepsy.

While in the Haley VA Hospital, Crabtree started to break out of her depression and distress. She began to accept her situation, and entered therapy which among other things would help her see her future diffently. Indeed she "inspired and motivated several critical wounded soldiers and instilled a positive, can-do spirit." 

Because of her medical issuues, the Navy decided to discharge her. That aggravated her a bit:

"I wanted to stay." She had learned how to walk again with help, but she still had problems with her right arm and vision. She commented, "It cut my vision in half." Holly Crabtree was a "go-getter." In high school she played three sports. One observer termed her as "an athletic rambunctious young woman." 

She said:

"I plan on still helping wounded warriors and seeing as many as I can to give them encouragement to keep on going. I want people to know this injury changed my whole life, but to tell wounded people there's still hope."

Originally the Navy intended to retire PO1 Crabtree at that rank. However, she studied Navy regulations and found that she was eligible to take the exam for chief petty officer (CPO). She had problems reading, so a CPO read the questions to her, and she answered them. She passed it, and was promoted to Chief Hospital Corpsman in 2011. That meant, among other things, the Navy would retire her as a CPO instead of the lower ranking PO1. That was huge since she had a daughter, Leah.

Following retirement, Crabtree wanted to help others. This photo shows her talking to students at a school outreach after retirement.

In 2012, she went with a group of other combat-wounded veterans to a remote river in Alaska on what's known as the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, designed for those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was a pack-rafting challenge. She went on the trip just two weeks after being released from the trauma center at the Haley VA hospital. She carried a heavy pack on her back, slid down a rocky hill on purpose, and adapted to two weeks of the rigors of the wilderness. She walked, tripped, fell and slept on rocky ground, and experienced being drenched by rain. In this photo she is climbing up a "hill." I'm not sure which one she is, but I think she is number three in line. She worked with her team to navigate and row raft on a cold and swift river, using her left arm to row.

This photo shows Crabtree shooting an AR-15 as part of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. She reportedly hit the target in a tight grouping, the first time she had fired the weapon since she was wounded.

Following the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, she said:

"I was at the point where I'd given up hope. I was doing that because I'd locked myself in a box. I took a chance and went on this trip and it turned out to be the most awesome and therapeutic thing I could ever walk into. I don't even feel like the same person. So I encourage anyone and everyone to take the step outside that box and try something. Now that I have that faith in myself, it's like there are countless people I can have that faith for."

In 2012, Crabtree received the Vigiano Family Hope & Courage Award presented by the organization Hope For The Warriors®. This photo shows her with her daughter Leah receiving the award along with actor Gary Sinise, who served on the Hope for the Warriors Advisory Council. Please note the Expeditionary Warfare pin above CPO Crabtree's medals.

This award is named in honor two Vigiano sons, NYPD Detective Joseph Vigiano and FDNY fireman John Vigiano II. Both were killed as a result of the September 11 attacks in New York. Their father, John Vigiano, Sr., shown here,is a former Marine and retired FDNY Captain who has volunteered his time and resources to help Gold Star families and wounded heroes. He is on the honorary council of the Hope for Warriors.

Each year the organization presents awards to service members and military families who have demonstrated both hope and courage in facing challenges after their injuries.

Reflecting back, Crabtree said,

“I don't regret anything that happened. I love the Navy. I love my job … This is our job.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Cpl Nick Ziolkowski: "The Angel on my Shoulder"

"Operation Phantom Fury" was among the fiercest urban warfare battles in American history, fought in Fallujah, Anbar Province, Iraq. Fallujah was the stronghold for insurgents in Iraq at the time the operation was launched. The battle of November - December 2004 was non-stop. 

Cpl. Nickolas Lee Ziolkowski, USMC, shown here, a Marine scout-sniper was one of the Fallen. He was assigned to Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF), B/1-8 Marines for short.

Sgt. Monty Devenport: Devenport said,

"Fallujah wasn’t hell, but it’s in the same area code."

Christoper Thomas wrote,

"Sgt. Monty Devenport, 1-8 Marines, said the anger he had while serving in Fallujah is still with him, though he said it’s mostly due to a nation that doesn’t seem to know or care about what he and his 'brothers in arms' did during that month in late 2004. He hopes Americans come to understand and appreciate what coalition troops did while serving in Fallujah." Thomas quoted Devenport, "I hope they understand what we gave up for that land and why we feel the way we do. This was no insignificant event and it seems like the American people don’t care. They don’t even know where Fallujah is … But, I gained the kind of perspective the average person will never get."

What does "Fallujah" mean to you?

Bing West, in his book No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, wrote:

"The men who died in Fallujah were not victims. They were 'aggressive warriors.' Stories of their bravery deserved to be recorded and read by the next generation … A cottage industry has sprung up in academia to study counterinsurgency as if it were a branch of sociology. In (my) book, a narrative of war, you meet the troops. War is the act of killing. As a nation we have become so refined and so removed from danger that we don't utter the word 'kill.' The troops in this book aren't victims. They are hunters."

Marine Major Francis Piccoli, USMC, served in Fallujah, and told Voice of America this:

"This is all going to come down to that young man, that 19, 20 year old corporal, lance corporal whether he's a soldier or a marine, leading his particular fire team or his squad through the city, house by house, block by block, room by room."

Dexter Filkins of The New York Times was embedded with B/1-8 Marines, a rifle company. He has several insightful articles on the internet from which I will draw.

This particular segment grabbed my attention:

“Despite their youth, the marines seemed to tower over their peers outside the military in maturity and guts. Many of Bravo Company's best marines, its most proficient killers, were 19 and 20 years old; some directed their comrades in maneuvers and assaults. Bravo Company's three lieutenants, each responsible for the lives of about 50 men, were 23 and 24 years old.

“They are a strangely anonymous bunch. The men who fight America's wars seem invariably to come from little towns and medium-size cities far away from the nation's arteries along the coast. Line up a group of marines and ask them where they are from, and they will give you a list of places like Pearland, Tex.; Lodi, Ohio; Osawatomie, Kan.”

You might have asked why I highlighted Cpl. Ziolkowski. While browsing through some photography, by chance I focused on this photo of Cpl. Nicholas Lee Ziolkowski, USMC. Frankly, it looked like he had been through the wringer, a bit ragged. If so, why was he smiling? Maybe just happy to be alive. Then I remembered I had forgotten what we looked like in the Indochina War, at times pretty ragged as well.

So I looked him up. I quickly learned he was a Marine scout-sniper with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF). The shorthand for all that is B/1-8 Marines. Then came the hammer: He was killed in action by enemy fire while fighting in Fallujah, Iraq on November 14, 2004. That being the case, he now had my full attention.

Cpl. Ziolkowski was known as "Ski" to his fellow Marines. “Ski” was 22 when he was killed.

Nick was from Towson, Maryland. He graduated in 2001 from the Boy’s Latin School of Maryland, in Baltimore. This is the oldest, independent and nonsectarian college preparatory school for boys in Maryland, founded in 1844. The school emphasizes integrity, courage and compassion for others. The school on average has about 640 students enrolled kindergarten through 12th grade.

Ziolkowski was the captain of the school’s cross-country team in his senior year. At 17 he completed the Navy Seal Odyssey program, the 24-hour version of the Navy’s “Hell Week,” finishing in the top ten among several hundred participants and the youngest man to finish.

Nick left for active duty with the Marines less than a month after graduation, on July 2, 2001. This photo shows him at his Marine barracks when his mom, Tracy Miller visited. He was said to be intensely patriotic, one who planned to join the military since ninth grade, selecting the Marine Corps in 10th grade. He began running and lifting weights daily to get himself into shape.

While in the Marines, he often returned to the school to talk to students who were taking military history classes. Butch Maisel, the military history teacher, said:

“I let him teach the whole class. The kids were spellbound ... He really seemed to love what he was doing … People respected his decision to join the Marines … When he came back, he always drew a crowd."

Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said, "He loved his country more than any person I know that age."

Ab Logan taught English when Ziolkowski was a senior. He said:

"He was just real clear -- the reason he was so envied by the other kids, he seemed so clear about what he wanted to do … They didn't want to be Marines, they just wanted to be Nick."

In the Marines, Ski, shown here at war, was a team leader and scout sniper. He also led a number of squads on several occasions.

He had originally planned to make the Marines a 20 year career, but while at Camp Lejune, he reportedly told his mother, “I feel I have this chain yanking me back when I want to do something.”

Nick had been in Iraq since June 2004. He was scheduled to leave in February 2005 and planned to attend Towson University, north of Baltimore.

While planning to go to Towson University, he wanted to live in the residence halls, but his mother said,

“He promised he would come home for dinner every night!” Of course he would! He was not going to leave mom's cooking behind!

Killed in Iraq on November 14, 2004, Cpl. Nick Ziolkowski was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on November 24, 2004, ten days after being killed and one day before Thanksgiving. This photo was taken at his burial.

Dexter Filkins, described Ziolkowski as follows:

"Tall, good-looking and gregarious, Corporal Ziolkowski was one of Bravo Company's most popular soldiers. Unlike most snipers, who learned to shoot growing up in the countryside, Corporal Ziolkowski grew up near Baltimore, unfamiliar with guns. Though Baltimore boasts no beach front, Corporal Ziolkowski's passion was surfing; at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Bravo Company's base, he would often organize his entire day around the tides. 'All I need now is a beach with some waves,' Corporal Ziolkowski said during a break from his sniper duties at Fallujah's Grand Mosque, where he killed three men in a single day. During that same break, Corporal Ziolkowski foretold his own death. The snipers, he said, were now among the most hunted of American soldiers … Intelligence officers had warned him that this time, the snipers would be targets."

This is a photo of Ziolkowski up front, his close buddy Dominic with the glasses behind him. This apparently was the last known photo of Nick prior to his being killed that same day. 

I mentioned Ashley Gilbertson earlier, a New York Times photo journalist working with Filkins and embedded with B/1-8.

Gilbertson described Ziolkowski: "Cool, (Ski) was really cool, a really nice guy. Ski said that he had been looking for a particular sniper, one that had been, one that had been firing at him, and he had been looking for, for the whole battle."

Tom Foreman, a CNN correspondent with the B/1-8, in a conversation, asked, "How could he identify this (premonition that an enemy sniper was hunting him)?"

Gilbertson responded, "I have no idea."

Sgt. Aubrey McDade, B/1-8 then interjected,

"He knew the sniper was trained. He didn't know if he was Chechnya or Serbian or whatever, but he knew that."

Foreman then asked, "But he had a real sense that there is a guy out there that was trying to get him?"

McDade responded, "Yes, sir."

Foreman then talked more about Ziolkowski:

"What no one is expecting is what comes six days in. The men had been led to believe the entire battle would be done by now. Bravo has pushed nearly to the southern edge of town. They are exhausted, edgy, in need of any kind of relief. So, as they hunker down for another sleepless night, it helps that Ski sits easily among them, talking about home, college plans, surfing. When morning comes, Ski, the sniper, climbs back to the roof with his rifle to scan the horizon."

There is then a quick exchange in the interview among several B/1-8 Marines:

Lt. Chris Wilkens, B/1-8: "And, all of a sudden, we hear one shot ring out."

LCpl Blake Benson, B/8: "I remember sitting there, and I hear, you know, one crisp shot."

Wilkens: "And then they carried him (Ziolkowski) out on the stretcher right in front of everybody."

Benson: "That totally destroyed me there. That was very hard to see."

In his book On Call in Hell: A Doctor's Iraq War Story, Lt. Commander Dr. Richard Jadick, USN, talked about Ziolkowski's last moments:

"Bravo Company was still heading south. They held up momentarily at about seven thirty a.m. on the fourteenth (of November 2004), along with some members of Scout Sniper platoon, waiting for forces from the Army's 2-2 Task Force to link up for joint advance. The Marines went firm, posting security at the perimeter and along the rooftops. The sun was just coming up as Corporal Nicholas L. Ziolkowski, everybody called him Ski, one of the friendliest, most popular guys in the battalion, raised his head above his high powered scope for a moment.

"A skilled sniper, the twenty-two-year-old from Towson, Maryland, was scanning the surrounding area for movement; in a firm situation like that your snipers are one of the most important aspects of force protection. Maybe it was a glint from his scope, or the movement of his head, I don't know. But something attracted the attention of a counter-sniper on the other side. One crack, one shot, and Corporal Ski went down.

"HM2 Kevin Markley, Bravo Company's senior company corpsman, was there on the roof with him right away, and he saw, he knew, there was no way with a head shot like that. But you do everything you can, always. First Sergeant Whittington wanted to get his wounded Marine off the roof, so Markley did what he could to stabilize the man, and they moved him down."

Foreman: "Ski is rushed to the aid station, so badly injured, only when Dr. Jadick sees the name on his uniform does he realize who this is. He quietly asks his staff to leave."

Jadick: "(Ski) had some significant, massive trauma to his head, and he wasn't going to make it. And I didn't want the memories to -- to hurt the corpsmen."

Foreman: "Every death reverberates throughout Bravo, and this one, so close to what they think is the end, is especially hard."

Wilkens: "It was like, I didn't have that angel on my shoulder anymore, you know, because Ski wasn't there."