War Loses Us

Rick Crocker, 1966-2005

Still, it seemed a bit unnecessary this year. There was no fuss or controversy over the program this time, which made Koppel's comments at the end of the broadcast especially poignant:


* * *

"So, has anyone mentioned the Marine who died?" I asked my kids.

"Well, not really," my daughter said, which meant, no, no one had said anything.

I mentioned that to Patty Loggins-Tazi, who was good friends with Crocker and worked with him at the Police Activities League (PAL). Loggins-Tazi is the program director; Crocker volunteered to work with PAL as part of his job.

Kids are like that, she said. But, she said, so are adults. So was she.

"I mean, it's horrible to say, because more than 1,600 Americans had died before Rick," she said, "but it wasn't until then . . . You just don't know. You just can't put a face on it until it comes to your yard, and then it's awful. I mean, of course, in my mind, I always knew something could happen to Rick, but I just couldn't really believe it. Rick was too strong, too full of life."

PAL is a nonprofit organization that works with the Santa Monica Police Department to give kids someplace to go after school, to study, play, be safe and out of trouble. Crocker helped prepare kids for SAT exams, started a book club, and took them on camping and hiking trips, the latter becoming tests of endurance.

"You'd say, 'I think it's time to go back,' and he'd say, 'Almost, almost,'" she recalled. "He just had such excitement, glee about life. I remember one time we got a grant for camping equipment and he was like, 'Patty! Check this out! Look how this lantern is going to light up!'"

Patty was on the phone with her mother when someone clicked in on the other end and said Rick had been killed.

"He said, 'Patty, I have some really bad news. I know how close you were to Rick . . .' And then he told me and I just started screaming, 'Don't say anything bad about Rick, you cruel bastard! How dare you!' And I kept screaming and hung up and my mom asked me what was wrong and I told her someone's saying Rick is dead and she knew Rick because she was part of his e-mail group also—she and her bridge ladies, they would send him cookies. So I called in a while later and I asked, 'Is it true? Is it true?'"

She recalls climbing on an exercise bike, perhaps a few days after, and feeling hollow. "I didn't think I'd make it to 15 minutes," she says. On the TV in front of her she was dimly aware of a documentary about soldiers' last letters home. She tuned in. She pedaled faster, furiously. She cried, she raged—and then the program ended and she looked at the clock: she'd been riding for almost an hour.

Patty found herself consumed by grief by anger. She had known things were bad in Iraq and wondered why Rick had to go back. One reason being that as the war has worn on, enlistment levels have dropped, which has meant reservists such as Crocker are being asked to do more. When his first tour in Iraq ended in the fall of 2004 and he came to visit PAL, Crocker told Loggins-Tazi that he wasn't ready to talk about what he'd seen. She ran interference.

"People would start to ask him about it, and I'd swoop in and say, 'Rick, there's a call for you.' He appreciated that."

But when he was called back for his second tour, his e-mails communicated an increasingly bleak situation, even for someone as gleeful as Rick Crocker.

"He'd say, 'This place sucks.' It was clear that it was hard," Loggins-Tazi said. "But I want to say that Rick believed in what he was doing. He was a good man, a good Marine."

In an e-mail sent less than three weeks before his death, Crocker wrote about a series of injuries and deaths caused by a land mine, a suicide bomber and an improvised explosive device. "It's been tough on everybody," he wrote. "Feeling numb inside, tired."

Gretchen Vizzi got the same e-mails and would find herself editing them for the kids, but only for language. "If he said some of my men were killed today, I told the kids some of his men were killed today."

Particularly hard, she said, was a picture of three men standing together with Crocker that he had sent them. Over time, one by one, Crocker would inform her that each of the men had died.

"It got to the point where he was the only man alive in the picture," she said. "It was spooky. And now Rick's gone."

It's been nearly a month since Crocker's death as I talk to Vizzi. I mention to her that I haven't sensed lingering shock or grief from my kids or any of their friends. When I mentioned Crocker to one of my son's pals, he smiled and said, "Oh, yeah, I sent that guy sunflower seeds." They'd moved on to other concerns—Little League playoffs, summer vacation, graduation.

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