War Loses Us

Rick Crocker, 1966-2005

Thinking about it now, Rick Crocker may have already died by the time I saw him at school.

It was early June when my daughter called me, fairly panicked. She'd forgotten something—homework, permission slip, something—and could I please, please, please, retrieve it and bring it down to the school office where she'd meet me? I did, all the while rehearsing the 30-second speech about responsibility I'd give her. I got to the office, said hi to the secretary and waited. One minute turned to two, five minutes turned to the uncomfortable feeling of hovering, and I set about not making eye contact; looking up, down and to the right, where I saw a framed notice on the office wall with a picture of a man with short hair and intense eyes.

It said that Marine Reserve Major Rick Crocker had been e-mailing kids at the school who e-mailed and sent him things. About that time, my daughter rushed in, grabbed whatever it was I'd brought, kissed me, said "Love ya, Dad," whirled and was out the door screaming for her friend Jelly to wait up.

That night, I mentioned the paper and the soldier, and the kids said that they'd been e-mailing Crocker for some time. That he'd sent them things—pictures and Iraqi money—and I finally had my answer as to how my 11-year-old son had gotten his hands on currency with Saddam Hussein's picture on it and why he, for a time, had taken to saying in an accent of no particular origin: "I will give you 200 dinares."

One of the fifth-grade teachers, Gretchen Vizzi, had met Crocker while taking a surf class, and they'd become good friends. Crocker was like that; meet him once, friends for life, which is why his e-mail list was voluminous. When people sent him personal items, he asked that they send supplies for the Iraqi children they were attempting to set up schools for.

"We sent pencils, crayons, anything," Vizzi said. "But then one day he e-mailed and said, 'We can't take any more. It's getting really bad.' They weren't able to receive packages anymore because there had been so many bombings."

* * *

"Dad, guess what?"

My daughter is 14. As she spoke she was a couple of weeks away from graduating from middle school to high school. Her tone was serious, almost solemn, which could mean something serious or solemn had happened, or she'd forgotten a permission slip.

"Remember that soldier . . ."

Crocker was killed on May 26. By the time the news got to the kids at school, he'd been dead for a few days. Vizzi said that students' reactions ranged from a nod to an "Oh, how sad."

A lot of the kids, she said, "were really interested in howhe died."

Crocker was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack during combat in the Iraqi city of Hadithah. His death was reported by newspapers, usually in a single paragraph that noted he was a 10-year veteran of the Santa Monica Police Department, was on his second tour of duty in Iraq, was single, was 39. About the only difference from one brief obituary to the next was his residency—variously listed as Mission Viejo, Redondo and Hermosa. The LosAngelesTimesran a longer piece about how Crocker's death had affected the Santa Monica PD. That story told how the police chief had been so impressed with Crocker after interviewing him in 1995 that he held a position for six months until he finished his original Marine service. It told about how the cops kept around the office a life-size cutout of Rick in combat gear.

The Timesstory was long but ran on an inside page. This wasn't like the early days of the war, when deaths shocked whole towns. When Costa Mesa's Jose Garibay died early on, papers, radio and TV stations were alive with tales of his bravery, how he purposely hadn't told his mother he was going to Iraq to save her the worry, how he'd been posthumously awarded American citizenship.

But by the time Crocker died, there was a certain amount of, not acceptance, but resignation. American deaths no longer led newscasts or were front-page news. Many times they were lumped in with stories that tended to begin, "Two American soldiers and 19 Iraqi civilians were killed in a wave of attacks that . . ."

On May 30, Memorial Day, ABC's Nightlinebroadcast the names of American servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a list of nearly 1,000, in chronological order of their passing. Crocker had died just four days before, but he made the list. So did four other soldiers—Alfred Siler, Mark Maida, Matthew Lourey, Joshua Scott—who died after him.

Before anchor Ted Koppel began reading the names, he addressed the furor that had followed Nightline's reading of the names of fallen soldiers the year before. Some had complained that the show was simply being sensational or chasing ratings—Memorial Day falls within the May sweeps. Others questioned the patriotism of Koppel and ABC and insinuated they were attempting to embarrass the country, administration, even the soldiers by recognizing their sacrifice. The sting of it hit Koppel so hard that he felt compelled this year to take the extraordinary step of saying about the war in Iraq, "I am not, in fact, opposed to it."

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