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.”

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