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Sunday, November 25, 2012

144th ASMC and Iraq... Part Four (Bye, Bye, USA... Hello Kuwait)

The most satisfying part of the pre-deployment phase, was when it was over.  Knowing we had fulfilled all the nonsense the Army required of us prior to shipping out to a combat zone.  It was November 2005, our whole company was ready to get on with our wartime mission and eventually get back to our families and lives back home in the states.  We had to complete a few weeks of training at Camp Bullis near Fort Sam Houston prior to shipping overseas.  Between the training in and around Fort Bliss and Camp Bullis we had an opportunity to go home for nearly a week.  It was a breath of fresh air, for me it would only be a couple months before I returned on my mid-tour leave, with a baby on the way I would be allowed to go home after her birth, albeit a month after the baby arrived.  This visit would be when we said our final goodbyes with out homeland below our feet.  After the training in Camp Bullis, we would be headed straight to Kuwait, with the eventual destination of war-torn Iraq. 

Ireland Layover
As I mentioned, this was without a doubt the best moment of the pre-deployment phase.  We were finally going to deploy and complete the mission that was laid out before us months ago.  There still was some uncertainty as to what we would be doing, but we knew our tight little medical company would be split into several teams to be placed in various locations throughout Iraq.  As far as the locations, we had no immediate reliable intel on what the locations were truly like, if there had been recent or many attacks, or how volatile the world we were walking into might be.  Fortunately, it would be a pretty benign atmosphere for most of us, for at least half the year we spent with "boots on ground."  As it should have been considering that the majority of us did not have missions that were likely to take us "outside the wire" and into uncertain circumstances in what could be unfriendly parts of Iraq. 

Kuwait awaited, one long flight with a nice short layover in Shannon, Ireland.  I mention Ireland in my book, it was simply a beautiful place from the views I had behind the large windows of the airport.  I need to go to that country sometime in the future, guess I will add that to the bucket list.  As beautiful as Ireland was, we would soon be in the desert, some of the Army facilities, are plopped perfectly in sparse desert lands of the Kuwaiti nation.  In stark contrast to the greenery of Ireland, we were about ready to drop landing gear into Kuwait City, which is full of life, then be bussed straight into the nether region of Kuwait.  It was an interesting couple of days, from Texas to Ireland, to Kuwait.  From the freedom of the USA, to the frailty of the Middle East.  But it was "mission go" time and the time was ripe for the taking, and there was plenty of time to be had, 12 months of it.

Below is a trimmed excerpt from my book, Combat Support "The True Burden Of Sacrifice." This piece never made print as I nixed it on my way to shrinking the overall length of the book.

Friday, November 25, 2005

            Today we encountered our first experience with Soldiers involved in an IED attack.  Luckily for them it blew up 25 meters in front of them, and besides being a bit shaken over the experience, the only problems they had were headaches.  The fact that they are going home in a week also may have played into the things they were feeling during that near miss. 
            Of course our young friend came in for his daily dressing change, modern medicine is great, his burns are healing, but it will take months to replace the skin he lost.  So we will continue to change his dressing and monitor him for signs of infection.  Infection is the complication that will kill burn victims.  If not prevented or caught early, with the significance of his injury he could run the risk of death from infection.  Let’s just hope we can continue to clean it sufficiently and keep any infection away.
             We are starting to get into the groove of things, everyone here is working their butts off and as the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge, I couldn’t be happier or more pleased with how everyone on this team has jelled and stepped up to the plate to do what it takes to make this a successful mission.  I just hope that it will continue for the next 12 months.
            Shannon and the kids had a nice Thanksgiving, everything went well and I am glad to hear that they are all doing fine.  Shannon told me that her mother (surrogate) is going to move down to live with her when she has the baby, which is good news, she can use all the help she can get.  I miss them all and as always can’t wait to be reunited.  Good night from Camp Scania, Iraq.
            I still remember the encounter with our first combat casualties.  I was awakened late at night and told that the casualties were on their way in.  We expected the worse, as it turns out there was no serious injuries and the initial high wore off once the casualties arrived and there was no immediate cause for rapid action on our part.
Shannon’s surrogate mother is Kathy Crow, a woman that was nice enough to take Shannon in when her biological parents seemed to have little role in her life.  It takes a special person to welcome a near total stranger into your home and then treat them as one of your own.  That is how Grandma Crow is, she has been that way with Shannon and although she was initially concerned about the relationship Shannon started with an active Army Soldier she eventually warmed to my antisocial ways and welcomed me into the family also.  It was a welcome relief to know there was that little bit of extra help as the due date for our fourth child neared.  It is sacrifices like that that again show the all encompassing sacrifice of not just the Soldier, but the individuals that are involved in the Soldier’s life also.

Monday, November 19, 2012

144th ASMC and Iraq... Part Three

The initiation into a National Guard Deployment is the pre-deployment phase.  Prior to flying out of state to a mobilization site (which site you go to partially depends on the type of unit you belong to) there is usually a short pre-mobilization training period in your home-state.  Unfortunately, the worst part of deployment for the National Guard soldier is the pre-deployment portion of the activation.  At this point in the game the pre-mobilization training usually takes 3 months, it has been known depending on what type and size of unit you belonged to, to take upwards of 6 months.  I was extremely frustrated at this point, I vented often in my journal about how much of my time was being wasted, along with the taxpayer dollar.  I don't think individuals in the planning of these mobilizations were looking at the big picture.  If there was a little more coordinating and preparation we could save soldiers so much anxiety and discontent from the pre-deployment circus.

We left the Salt Lake International Airport on a direct flight to El Paso, Texas, and Fort Bliss.  There was nothing blissful about this part of the country for me, however, I left there with the knowledge that it would not be a very appropriate place for me to live.  I had horrible allergies during the last few weeks of training.  Seemed like I was under constant assault from a nerve agent, runny nose, stuffy head, cough, and no relief regardless of what I took, except Benadryl.  The unfortunate side effect of Benadryl is that it makes you tired, so at best I could only take it at night.  We are still subjecting National Guard soldiers to these long pre-deployment training adventures, some of it is needed for certain, but much of it, especially the down time sitting on your ass away from family, is gross negligence.  That is simply my opinion, and my opinion only. 

Regardless of how I felt about it, pre-deployment training was the first leg of our journey.  We only spent a week at Fort Bliss before being shipped out to Dona Ana, New Mexico to live for the next couple months while we trained.  I describe in my book the living conditions and the dilapidated buildings we used, however, 80 years ago they were most likely in excellent shape.  The best part of the time we spent in the southwest USA was the camaraderie that developed between the soldiers in our unit, so regardless of how poorly the time was managed, in the long run it brought the unit closer together.

A journal entry from the pre-deployment phase is below, you can get the whole story here:
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Friday, September16, 2005

Miserable, that’s how I feel, as if I’ve been run over by a freight train. No energy, no motivation, no will to do much of anything. That’s probably why we were out conducting more training for which I need energy and motivation. At least I’m not sitting around doing nothing, but the way my allergies have been hammering me lately, I’d rather just be sitting around. Yesterday and today we have been conducting quick reaction force (QRF) and traffic control point (TCP) training. Today the treatment platoon got a chance to set up the TCP, and we had much more action than yesterday.

For today’s mission I was reduced to a private; we let the junior enlisted get a feel for being in charge, and I was a member of the initial security team that went in and set up a 360-degree security perimeter as the rest of the platoon set up our AO (Area of Operation), which included vehicle and personnel search areas. All this meant was that I got to fire off more rounds, even though they were blanks. I definitely didn’t let the opportunity to fire my weapon pass me by. I had sixty rounds to begin with, but in a real situation I would have much more. The first time our AO came in contact with enemy fire I unloaded my whole magazine, thirty rounds, at the van firing at us. From that point on I decided I would conserve my ammo and only fire a few rounds at each encounter. If the rounds had been live and the enemy a true enemy, he would have been dead pretty quickly. I made sure my sights were aligned center mass on each individual; I don’t think I would have missed because the insurgents we encountered were less than 150 meters away.

The unfortunate part of a medical company pretending it’s an infantry or MP Company is the fact that some individuals don’t know that firing a weapon with your buddy in your line of sight is a bad thing. (Yes, I’m serious.) We were using blanks, but the instructors caught two individuals firing with friendly personnel in their line of sight. What does that mean? It is called fratricide, death by friendly fire. We had two, and that is absolutely unacceptable, no matter how you look at it.
The first was questionable. One of our SSGs fired at the enemy while a soldier was on one knee, trying to clear a weapons jam, about ten feet in front of him. The rounds he fired would have passed over the soldier, but if the soldier stood up, it would have been tragic. The second was absolutely negligent. The soldier was working in personnel search in the middle of AO and came in contact with enemy fire. This soldier decided to return fire from the middle of the AO, and continued to follow and fire at the insurgent as her line of fire took her straight into our Platoon Sergeant (PSG) who was working personnel search less than five feet from her. At the moment it was pretty funny, from what the others told me, but we’ll be using live rounds at some point, and the last thing I want is to get shot by a fellow soldier because they forget the basics of muzzle control with their M-16. It’s all fun and games until someone shoots an eye out.

Overall, it was a positive experience; the instructors didn’t have many negative things to say. We cleaned up the AO, police called the whole area for trash and brass, then returned to our barracks to enjoy the rest of the day. For me it wasn’t enjoyable, because all the dust and pollen that I’d been inhaling the last two days left me with a nose that was constantly running and uncontrollable sneezing fits.

I called Shannon and the kids. They were at Rick and Doris’s, so we had a short conversation—just long enough for me to say goodnight to each of them and find out Dylan’s soccer team won their game 6–2. Dylan scored another goal on a corner kick, something that rarely happens at any level of soccer. I’m pretty impressed. Hopefully he’ll keep pushing himself to get better than the next guy. If he doesn’t then he’ll be good, but possibly not the best. Good night.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Veterans Day 2012

Here we are, another Veterans Day, a day to remember those who have served in the past, those that have placed their lives on the line in foreign land, for country, and for freedom.  The significance of this day, personally, resides in the fact that I returned to my "home of record" from deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom on this very day in 2006.  It was the end of what would be the biggest accomplishment of my professional career, and may forever be just that, never being outdone again. 

I was invited to be a guest speaker following the Veterans Day parade in Bloomsburg, PA yesterday, November 10, 2012.  Honestly, I was hesitant, mainly because I suck at speaking in public.  That isn't may be a harsh judgement of myself, but, it is simply the truth.  However, I felt I had to accept, not to prove anything to myself, but simply because thoughts of my grandfather (POW in WWII) and all the veterans that have come before me, who am I to refuse such a privileged request, who am I to say no when offered such an honor.  I said yes.  So yesterday I reported to the Fire Hall in Bloomsburg with my wife, kids, and mother in tow. 

I had planned what I was going to say, had it all written down.  I was going to run through a brief introduction, tell where I am from, when I joined the Army, where I had served, etc.  I was then going to talk about the near epidemic plaguing the military now, behavioral health disorders, what I feel we can do to help move towards resolving these issues.  Then of course get into what the military has done for me, what it has given me in my life.  That was the plan, that isn't what happened, but that was the plan.

What happened when I arrived was a culmination of emotions that were unbearable for me to control, especially in front of all the grizzled vets that were present.  As soon as the veterans started to make their way in from the end of the parade I could already tell that I was going to have issues.  I started to have tears well up in my eyes, simply with the thought of what many of these men lived through years ago.  As my family and I were standing waiting for remaining individuals from the parade to roll in we spoke to a gentleman named Mr. Ed Livsey.  He was a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  He would end up playing the national anthem on the clarinet before I spoke, but at this moment he was telling us how he learned to play the clarinet, but never knew how to read music.  He would just need to hear the music one time and he could play it as though he was reading it from a sheet of music.  Pretty amazing, but as he was talking, he spoke of his wife and then of his service.  He stated he went to Vietnam and never saw any action there, then starting to well up with emotion he stated that he saw horrible things and good friends die in Korea all rolling out through a quivering voice while tears appeared in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks.  He is 81 years old.  A prime example of why service is so important to me, men like this.

So, as pleasant as my visit with Mr. Livsey was, it increased my emotional anxiety, dramatically, I knew I was going to have trouble getting through my short talk.  So, after the invocation, Pledge of Allegiance, National Anthem, I was called to the microphone as the "guest speaker."  Honestly, I probably left a lot to be desired by the dozens of people gathered and awaiting their lunch.  I never pulled my written speech from my pocket.  I simply went up there, said who I was, mentioned my book, then could barely get anything else comprehensible out before thanking everyone and walking off.  It didn't last very long, my wife said I did fine (but what else would she say?), but I have no clue today what I said, none idea what so ever.  I would loose my composure every time I looked at my wife, she would be wiping away tears, then I would break down with emotion, voice cracking, tears forming, then compose myself again.  It is all a blur.  We stayed and ate lunch, it was a nice meal, I also spoke to several other individuals, veterans, and spouses of veterans.  All pleasant, but I wish I would have got some pictures with some of the elder vets.  That is my only regret, along with giving such a poor speech, but like I told my wife afterwards - I just have to live with it, regardless of how good, or bad it may have been.

Below is what my game plan was for the guest speaker spot, just notes to keep me on track (not edited).  Next time, I am pulling it out of my pocket.  Just need to make sure there is a next time.

·        Terry Cropf, born and raised in Danville, just down the river
·       Spent my childhood running the streets around the Memorial Park in Danville, grew up a block east on Bloom Street, in the home my parents still live
·        16 years of service in the US Army, or Army National Guard
o   enlistment began in January 1997 – basic training, advanced individual training
o   Korea for a year as a combat medic assigned to 1st of the 9th Infantry, Camp Hovey, (PCS) permanent change of station
o   Dugway Proving Ground, the best kept secret in the Army, a biological and chemical test facility in the west desert of Utah.  It was in Utah I met my wife, my future family, and decided I should leave the active Army
o   ETS (End/expiration term of service) - took a civilian Department of the Army position as an EMT/Occupational Health Technician in January 2001
·        September 11th – Re-enlisted in the Utah Army National Guard – love what the National Guard has to offer – unit stability
·        As a member of the Utah Army National Guard I spent approximately 45 days working security for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, a couple weeks in Nicaragua as part of New Horizons 2005, a humanitarian mission to build schools and provide medical services, and then the honor of serving my country in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005 to 2006.  Three months of pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Dona Ana and McGregor Ranges, New Mexico.  Then a 12 month deployment as the NCOIC of the Troop Medical Clinic at Convoy Support Center Scania, a small rest, refuel, and refit camp along MSR Tampa between Tallil in southern Iraq and the capital city of Baghdad. 
o   During this deployment I kept a journal, that journal became the foundation I built my first novel around – Combat Support – The True Burden of Sacrifice.  This is not a war story, but a story of service.  It is a comprehensive reflection of my life leading up to and through my service in Iraq.  A reflection of both good and bad choices, a look into the combat support role my unit, specifically my small team, played in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and my view of what simply is the True Burden of Sacrifice.  Which is larger than the individual, and encompasses the entire support system of the individual service member.
·        I returned from Iraq, to my hometown of Danville, transitioning to Physician Assistant school in Williamsport to further my educational goals and civilian and military careers.
·        During this time I transitioned to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, serving in the 109th Field Artillery in Wilkes-Barre prior to ending my enlistment and beginning my commissioned career as the battalion physician assistant for the 3rd of the 103rd Armor Regiment, now located in Danville.
·        One of the main drivers of the book was my personal struggle emotionally when returning from Iraq.  I wasn’t suffering from PTSD, there was some bad stuff over there, but I have seen worse in the nearly three years I have worked as a neurosurgery PA at Geisinger in Danville, more pain, more suffering, and much more death.  But what I suffered from was a significant adjustment disorder, leaving a place I where I had become so comfortable, everything had become so routine, I had my mission, my fellow soldiers, and little else to be worried about.  I discuss this all in the book, how upon returning I became someone to this day I do not recognize, a person that I honestly can say I despise.  In the moment however, I didn’t realize any of this, and from this I learned a valuable lesson.  That is to listen to the ones who have been there for me, in the good times and the bad, and understand that they can see things from the outside that I am oblivious to on the inside. 
·        Mental, emotional and behavioral disorders have become an epidemic in our small community, this great fraternity we share. 
o   Recent Reports:
§  Suicides
§  Estimated BH
·        How to improve on these issues
o   I call it Prepare, Persevere, and Pursue
§  Prepare, both on an individual basis and leaders preparing their troops more effectively not just on battle drills and the necessary psychomotor skills to navigate the battlefield, but also the emotional conditioning needed to prepare for all aspects of a combat or combat support deployment
§  Persevere, because life is not easy, it wasn’t meant to be.  If it was we all would be living lives where service to country would not be a priority.  But this is what we have chosen, or this is what chosen us.  And the life of a service member will never be easy for the individual or family
§  Pursue the needed help when life spins out of control and you lose grip of what is most important to you.  When you get knocked down and are in the darkest of moments in life – reach for those that have been there for you, your fellow service members, family, or the educated behavioral health providers that now form an Army of professionals that want to tame this current epidemic plaguing our brothers and sisters.
·        What else service to country has taught me
o   Respect – it is not necessarily something you deserve, but certainly is something you earn – earn by showing the same respect to others that you expect in return
o   Overcome hardship – because what we see in the small picture that is the vacuum of our lives, is just that, small in the big picture of this world we live in.  Regardless how bad our lives may seem at any given moment, we are almost guaranteed that someone in this world is suffering worse
o   The realization that the sky is the limit when it comes to what can be accomplished with a little team work – it speaks volumes and goes a very, very, long way
o   Finally – to take ownership of my actions whether good or bad, and to stand and face all challenges head on
·        In closing
o   Thank you for your time and attention
o   Honored to be here among true heroes and your families
o   Thanks you and your families for your collective and individual sacrifice

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - State Active Duty - The Future

It has been way too long since my last blog post, unfortunately this past week has been one of initial wonder, then preparedness, and eventual horror for many families throughout the New York, New Jersey, and Maryland coastline and also many families that felt the wrath further inland from Hurricane Sandy.  Last weekend, the last weekend of October 2012, we all prepared for Sandy to make landfall, no one in the northeast truly knew what to expect, I planned on going about my weekly routine, reporting to my neurosurgery physician assistant job early Monday morning as the storm began to show signs of making it's way through New Jersey.  I did just that, went to work, continued my normal daily duties as I always do and kept an eye on the weather, and some attention to my iPhone in case I received a call from my National Guard unit as Pennsylvania had 16,000 Guardsman on standby for what was feared to be a repeat of last year when we had significant flooding throughout out region in central and northeastern Pennsylvania. 

About 1000hrs I received that call, asking if I could report by 1200hrs for state active duty for what would become Operation Hurricane Sandy.  I reassured I could come in, but at the time I got the call I was inundated with work, as is our norm in neurosurgery, and said I could show up by 1600hrs.  I also had to shave my beard and get my uniform and other items together since I wasn't sure how long I would be asked to stay on orders, it would depend on the effect the storm had in our area of operation.  I left work shortly after 1500hrs and eventually made my way to my National Guard Armory which is conveniently located across the road from the subdivision where I live in Danville, PA.  This was not something that was planned, it just worked out that way, shortly after my family and I moved into our home they broke ground on the new armory.  I transferred to the unit that would eventually occupy that armory a little over a year before the armory opened.  Couldn't have worked out any better. 

Being a physician assistant I figured I could be available for the soldiers in case there was any injury or illness that I could manage locally without sending them to the emergency department.  Since the unit was operating with a strict number of soldiers I asked the powers that be if there was any other specific mission they might require from me.  There was, they asked me to man the tactical operations center (TOC) from 1900 to 0700 as the Battle Captain (officer in charge) and of course I couldn't refuse.  Being a medical officer I had no idea what was expected of me or what I needed to do, but after one shift it started to fall into place.  That first night I worked without sleep for 27 straight hours, from the time I woke up for work that Monday until I went to bed Tuesday morning after my shift ended on state active duty, 27 hours had elapsed.  That was the most difficult part of the state active duty in our area.  Our area of operations included eleven counties from where our armory is located north to the border with New York.  There were no missions during my shift and no requests from the Pennsylvania Emergency Medical Agency (PEMA) for help from our unit.

It was obvious from watching the weather channel all night that evening and early morning that the majority of the damage from this storm would be the Jersey Shore/East coast areas and New York.  West Virginia received significant snowfall, but by the grace of God north central Pennsylvania was spared major damage.  There were trees down in local towns and power outages, but no flooding, or other cause for significant concern.  We dodged a bullet, unfortunately many did not.

My state active duty ended Wednesday evening, only three short days and two long overnight shifts, I was back to neurosurgery by Thursday at 0645.  I can't help but think of all those who are suffering now, in those hard hit areas of Jersey and Staten Island.  I want to do more, sure I gave a very small amount of cash to the Red Cross, but more needs to be done.  I have tossed around an idea to gather a group of soldiers together and head down to Jersey for a weekend in the next few weeks to assist in recovery efforts.  Mainly to help clean up, give our time to help with labor, where it may be needed. So far I have a few of the guys from my platoon on board.  I need to resource some of my coworkers with ties in Jersey to see if there is a neighborhood we can adopt for a weekend and help in any way we can.  We could also take food and clothes down if we manage to get donations prior to heading down.  This idea is in the infancy of planning, but this is something we need to do, we need to help our fellow Americans in this time of need.

If you have read this post and are someone in the Jersey area in the need of some free labor, or you know of a neighborhood that is in need of such help, please go to and go to the contact link and send me a message and contact information.  Or click the link below and post a message on our newly created Facebook page.  We are looking at the weekend prior to or after Thanksgiving to lend a hand if needed.

Also available on is information to for the Red Cross and donations in support of those affected by Sandy.

God Bless the USA!!