As told to Ron Albers, Colonel, USAF - ret, for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
The word “soldier” may have many meanings or images to those who read or hear that particular word. To MSG Crystal Cockerell of the 145th Regiment (RTI) at Rickenbacker National Guard Base, that definition is not defined or limited by one’s race, gender age or service component. To her, the terms African American, female, wife, mother, business woman, Ohio Army National Guard (OANG) member and wounded veteran of the Iraq war are modifiers to what she feels is the base line definition as to who she is, a soldier.
Her military & civilian background
MSG Cockerell was born and raised as Crystal Lynn Farmer in Berea, Ohio. She joined the Regular Army in 1986 after completing her high school education, the last two years of which were spent in a foster home following the death of her mother. Her father had passed away when she was only two years old. She struggled during her childhood trying to fit in, never finding an identity or her niche in life. She is the youngest of four and is a twin. Crystal joined the Army because (among other reasons) she “wanted a world tour for free.” Her first MOS was 15E, Pershing Missile Crewmember. This MOS led her to Germany, where in 1990 she was reclassified as a 92G, Cook, following deactivation of the Pershing System. She met her husband James Michael while they were both in the service in Germany. Michael was honorably discharged from the Army in 1990, but he remained in Germany and then followed her to her next duty assignment.
In 1990 Crystal was transferred to the 10th Transportation Battalion at Ft. Eustis, Virginia, where she spent the remainder of her active duty Army career until she was honorably discharged in 1994. Michael & Crystal were married on July 1, 1991. In 1992 and 1993 she was deployed to Africa as part of the Operation Restore Hope mission. She remembers a certain incident over there which has left a negative mark on her toward Somalis. While walking on the pier of Mogadishu, she was approached by a Somali man who spit at her for her being in physical fitness attire. He told her that she was a disgrace to the African women, because she was not fully covered. She laughs and says she didn’t care about what he said. She was just worried because he spit on her, and that whole region of the world is contaminated. She simply didn’t want to catch a disease.
While on duty as 92G Food Service Sergeant at Ft. Eustis, Crystal attended Key Business College in Newport News, where she took classes in business and medical management. In 1994 Crystal was honorably discharged from the active duty Army, but she soon learned that she missed many things about military life, so she enlisted in the Ohio Army National Guard that same year. As a traditional guard member (“part-timer”) she worked for the next four years as a Food Service Manager. 1998 she cross-trained and became classified as a recruiter with a 79T MOS. In 2000, MSG joined the 145th Regiment, Regional Training Institute (RTI), as a Basic Non-Commisioned Officer Course (BNCOC) & Advanced Non-Commisioned Officer Course (ANCOC) instructor at Rickenbacker, where she is now stationed. These are required courses for promotion up through the enlisted ranks.
For her civilian employment after discharge, Crystal worked as a teaching aide for the Parochial Schools in the Diocese of Columbus from 1994 to 2000. She and her husband owned and operated a Bakery from 2001 to 2003, after which she joined the City of Gahanna’s Department of Development, her current employer.
Crystal and Michael are the parents of two daughters and a son. Their oldest daughter, Ashlie, is a member of National Honor Society, graduated from Bishop Hartley High School in 2008 and is now attending Ohio State University, where she was enrolled in an honors Robotic Engineering course. However Ashlie recently changed her major for the third time to study Pediatrics, which is her first love. Cockerell’s second daughter, Annabella, is a member of the Otterbein Children’s Choir and has sung at Carnegie Hall. Earlier this year she performed a leading role as Peggy in the Bishop Hartley play “42nd Street.” This has led her to New York for a free interview and visit with the prestigious school of theater, Juilliard. She is currently rehearsing for “GodSpell,” a religious production from St. Charles Catholic School. Their son James Michael, Jr. is active in several sports, including karate, soccer, softball, and basketball. He is occupied with a professional traveling soccer team and enjoys fishing, Legos, and loves to build. Crystal’s husband is a Corporate Trainer for Manhattan Mortgage Company.
MSG Cockrell presently is the Non-Commissioned Officer Education System (NCOES) Training Site Manager (TSM) at the RTI. Her mission as TSM is to ensure through her three subordinate NCOs, that the NCOES Program is prepared for accreditation. This is done by verifying that all NCOES Instructors are certified, qualified and able to teach their respective courses. Her duties include submission of instructor packets to Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and the National Guard Bureau (NGB.) Crystal is responsible for the accuracy and currency of Non-Commissioned Officer Evaluation Reports (NOCERs,) medical records, certifications, and all student files. She must physically observe each instructor in the classroom each quarter. Activated once again in February 2008 and presently on military leave from her City of Gahanna position, MSG Cockerell is currently serving as the 147th RTI Personnel Service Non-Commissioned Officer (PSNCO) at Rickenbacker while the incumbent is deployed to Kuwait. This is a full-time position and would be referred to as the Human Resources career field in the civilian community.
As a traditional Guard member MSG Cockerel was called to active duty for a year and served 7 months of that in Iraq. I asked MSG Cockerell her memories and thoughts about her deployment to Iraq. While there were a number of things she didn’t want to discuss, she was quite willing to tell me the following during my interviews with her:
She said that after 9/11/01 she, like most Americans, was outraged by the attacks on our nation. In November 2003 she was activated and deployed to Iraq with the 216th Engineer Battalion of the Ohio Army National Guard, which consisted of part-time soldiers from every area of Ohio. Although deployed as a Food Service Specialist, she was unable to serve very long in that MOS because dining facilities were operated by contract companies. She, therefore, was assigned to recovery missions, helping to transport equipment between bases.
It was while she was on convoy duty on August 10, 2004, that she was wounded after an insurgent had placed an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in the road. Shrapnel struck the vehicle she was riding in, leaving several pieces of steel in her left leg. Shards of the IED’s fragments also shredded her hands and face.
It was a rather sunny day when she woke up that morning to prepare for her convoy to Samaria and various other base camps. The mission was to drop off some supplies to soldiers positioned at one of those camps and to pick up some soldiers from Base Camp ArrifJohn, a distance away from Samaria. She remembers loading her gear and putting some food and a change of boots into her rucksack, not forgetting her sleeping bag just in case it turned into an overnighter, which one could never forecast. It all depended on the traffic and activities on the highways; and if the convoy arrived at a base camp in the evening, they were warned not to venture out on the road at night. She loaded her gear and proceeded to the convoy check point to wait for the remainder of the convoy. While waiting she had given special instructions to a friend, just like a group of them would do whenever they left the gate, “Once you get the word that something bad has happened, remember to use my phone 3x5 card and let my husband know a.s.a.p. before the lines of communication are cut off. (They would cut the lines, in order to get more information on the incident, so that the families were given all of the details accurately.) However, some of us devised a 3x5 card of cues to say to the spouse, friend, whomever you wanted contacted to give them a heads up that something bad had happened and then he is unable to hear from me for however long.” She says she laughed and goofed around with other members of the convoy before everything was in order and they departed.
Driving along the desert roads and taking a glimpse of the desolate areas always gave soldiers a sense of pride to know where they came from. She noticed a house in the middle of nowhere; and, when the military vehicles would pass, children would run out of the house waving at the soldiers. Sometimes the troops would throw MREs or candy at them, and the children all seemed to love it. After about 45 minutes into the long ride to their destination, they came upon an overpass which leads into the crowded, narrow streets of Samaria. “You could put your hand out of the window and touch the houses. That is how close to the streets they were, and there was not much room to travel with big military trucks.” This place holds a lot of significance to her; for, along these same streets, violence caused her to lose a true friend on July 7th, 2004. This particular soldier worked directly for her, and they would travel these streets of Iraq every day together, transporting equipment or soldiers throughout the regions of Iraq, sleeping under the stars on the bed of a vehicle and talking about religion, home, the families they left behind, what type of vacations they took, and how their children were doing and never forgetting the most important person in their life, their spouse. One day while they both were guarding some local Iraqis who had come on base to build a storage area for some of the unit’s vehicles, Samuel Bowen was called to drive a pop-up mission just down the way across the Samaria bypass. Crystal remembers giving him a list of things to purchase at the PX, and he updated his 3x5 card before giving it to her. She never knew the next time she would see him would be in a body bag. While passing thru this congested street of Samaria, his vehicle broke down. Sam and the passengers stood guard waiting for the remainder of the convoy to proceed to the rally points and get the tow truck to pick them up. While hunched down behind the door of a HUMVEE, an Iraqi launched a RPG from a roof top. It went through the door of the vehicle, severing Sam’s femoral artery; and he quickly bled to death. Crystal didn’t get word of the death until late that night, and she rushed down to identify the body. She remembers entering into a cold connex box; she had never seen a body bag in real life before. “It was black, kind of looked like a clothing bag you would take with you on a trip, so that your nicer clothes wouldn’t get messed up.” She remembers it lying on the ground toward the back of the connex. It wasn’t open. A soldier who worked in the mortuary unzipped the bag. She walked up to the body and looked down. “Yes, that was Sam all right, lying still. He looked like he was asleep, sleeping peacefully.” She then realized her only sanity, her best friend while in Iraq, was gone.
While driving thru the bypass, all of this came back to mind for Crystal. Finally, they were back on the highway and had made it safely though, driving like a pack of wild wolves looking for their next kill. The soldiers could see Iraqis running to get out of the way of the convoy. Along the road side Crystal noticed unusual Iraqi stores. “People would pull up to them and purchase what they where selling and then drive off.” She remembers looking out of the passenger’s side window at some kids who this time were not running toward the vehicles, but away. She remembers thinking, “What the hell are they doing?” At that very moment she heard a loud bang. It is hard for Crystal to describe because she had never heard anything like it before. “It was so loud,” she says, “and then it was like slow motion.” She looked back at the driver and asked, “What the hell did you hit?” She can’t remember what he said or remember if she even heard him, because her attention was drawn to the windshield, where small circles were forming on it. They would get bigger and bigger. She just kept staring at it in a daze until she heard another pop, and it felt like her jaw had fallen away from her face. She grabbed it as to keep it from falling off and fell onto the seat trying to pick it up. The only thing she can remember next is a brave young man coming to her rescue. It was her buddy SFC Kristoff. He had swung the door open and was yelling something at her. All Crystal can remember was sitting up and seeing two Iraqis, “squatted down in the hut with these shit-eating grins on their faces next to the now stopped Deuce-and-a-half engulfed in flames.” Crystal wanted to draw her gun and went for it, but she couldn’t find it. She then realized that she was being supported to the rally vehicle, and there was a lot of noise. “People were shouting and running all over the place, soldiers were pointing their weapons at the locals and yelling at them, vehicles were doing a massive turn around in the middle of the street. It was pure chaos!” Crystal was pushed into the vehicle and someone began cutting away at her boot and pants. There was blood everywhere. Once the pants were torn away, she finally realized that the blood was coming from her leg. Crystal had been hit in her left calf, and there was no exit wound. From there, things are fuzzy for her. She only remembers going to various medical stations for x-rays and medicine. Crystal remembers waking up two days later in her cot with a cast-like wrapping her leg and not being able to move. It took a month and a half to recover enough for her to be able to walk with a cane onto an airplane to go home. Crystal remembers SFC Kristoff whittling a cane for her from a tree in Iraq and having all of her buddies sign it. She has kept it for the memory of being alive and able to use her leg. “He saved my life,” she states, “and I am forever in debt to him.”
Crystal also keeps a picture of the truck in which another friend lost his life in Iraq on August 20, 2004. While on a mission to recover soldiers, 1LT Charles Wilkins III also ended up along the Samaria Bypass. LT Wilkins (from Columbus) and his vehicle also hit an IED, totally demolishing his truck and killing him instantly. Prior to the mission, he had written on the driver’s side door, “Thank you God for saving her.” (Also killed in the same incident was SPC Ryan A. Martin of Mt. Vernon, Ohio.) MSG Crystal Cockerell has lost a lot of close friends (some from other Ohio Army Guard units) in Iraq and can’t wait to see them again in heaven. The 216th sustained heavy losses during their deployment. 27 members of the unit were wounded in action, and three were killed.
Crystal had great family support during the time she was deployed. Her husband, Michael, kept her home together. Her mother in-law (Mary Jean Cockerell) and father in-law (James “Buzz” Cockerell) offered tremendous support, especially since her own parents were deceased. Her children kept up their school activities and stayed on the honor roll. Her son, Michael, only 4 at the time, later became withdrawn at school and home, because he missed her so much. Crystal remembers her oldest daughter, Ashlie, saying “Mikie asked if he could sleep with me and if I could wear mommy’s perfume” (Ashlie is a spitting image of Crystal). The City of Gahanna was very supportive and kept her job with the Department of Development for her. Crystal’s co-workers were present at her Purple Heart ceremony, presented during the annual Gahanna Veterans Day ceremony in 2004 .
MSG Cockerell stressed that throughout her military career she has identified herself as a soldier first. This attitude she believes has helped her with her career and through some difficult times. This theme keeps resurfacing, and I believe that it sums up her attitude toward life in general. By any account, Crystal Cockerell has not had an easy life; yet she has not looked elsewhere for others or situations to blame. Instead she chooses to meet problems head on and work through them. She sincerely believes in fundamental fairness for all people, not just for women or African Americans. She loves this quote from the eloquent Serenity Prayer, which says in part:
“God grant me the serenity accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”