By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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."
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.
"Kids are kids," she said. "And it's probably good they're that way. They get on with other things. But I'm different now. You know, what's going on over there, it doesn't mean anything until it hits your heart."
* * *
My daughter's middle school graduation took place last week, and it was nothing but joy, smiles and handshakes. Gretchen Vizzi was there to hug the kids she'd once taught and wish them good luck. There were the usual speeches about looking ahead, about the courage to face life's challenges, and looking at them—the girls in makeup and dresses, each boy in what's likely his first suit—you can see the beginnings of men and women.
When they graduate the next time, they'll be 18, eligible to enter the armed forces in 2009, the year Dick Cheney claimed the United States would be out of Iraq because the insurgency is "in its last throes."
The next day, Gen. John Abizaid, who heads the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he believes "there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," adding, "In terms of the overall strength of the insurgency, I'd say it's about the same as it was" six months ago.
That same day, the story broke that the Pentagon was using a direct marketer to compile an extensive database on American teenagers and college students—including GPAs and ethnicity—the military will target as enlistees.