by Katharine Blossom Lowrie

1966 to 2005

[EDITOR’S NOTE: All too soon those who gave their lives for our country vanish in a sea of casualty statistics, their character, bravery and humanity lost to all but family, friends and battle companions. To honor the fallen heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan, Précis will occasionally revisit those who have paid the ultimate price and recall some of the faces, dreams and hopes for the future that extended far beyond war.]

A lean, mean fighting machine

crocker.jpgMost knew Marine Corps Major Ricardo A. Crocker – a tall, buff, likable guy who loved spicy food and played ball like a pro – as Rick. Legendary in Al Anbar province for his winning way with Iraqi locals, the 39-year-old Marine Reservist was equally famous in Santa Monica, CA for his work with youth through the Police Activities League (PAL). When he left for Iraq in 2004, a life-size cutout photograph of Crocker – a lean, mean fighting machine in full combat gear – stood in the detective squad bureau of the Santa Monica Police Department where he had worked for ten years.

His fellow SWAT team members, even Police Chief James T. Butts, talked to him “as if he were there,” Chief Butts said in 2005. Email, FaceBook and letters kept them all in contact, Crocker’s SMPD pals, his family, and friends sending so many extravagant care packages that one Marine compared Crocker’s CAG (Civil Affairs Group) house in Iraq to a “supermarket.”

Swamped with an outpouring of support from folks back home, according to Maj. Scott Kinner of Twenty-nine Palms, CA, who served with Crocker in Western Al Anbar in 2005, “Major Crocker went out of his way to be generous with all the things he received. To anyone [out there] who sent him anything-thanks! I undoubtedly ate, read, or watched some of it!”

‘I hesitate to write about this’

Crocker sent regular dispatches to his colleagues in Santa Monica, photos and emails, describing the uncomfortable conditions, the difficulty in sorting out the combatants from the friendlies, the toll on human life. “Two Marines killed, several wounded,” he wrote on Aug. 21, 2004, during his first tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom II. “I was hesitant to write about this, however, it’s the reality of this place. Everyone in the battalion is getting through this.”

Except Rick Crocker didn’t get through this. He was one of three Marines killed in Haditha on May 25th, 2005 in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the Sunni area of Al Anbar province – a vast desert region that stretches west from the cities of Fallouja and Ramadi to the Syrian border – the epicenter of the nation’s insurgency at the time.  In what was called Operation New Market, according to one account, U.S. troops moved door-to-door through largely deserted streets at 5 a.m., “drawing a noose around Haditha.”

Col. Steve McKinley, commanding officer, 5th CAG, eulogized Rick Crocker at a memorial service at Camp Falluja in 2005. “He gave of himself and every facet of his being,” McKinley said.  “He was a leader and inspired me and his Marines to do better.”

A guy who loved Harleys and most of all kids

But this is where the theatrics of war and the generalities of well-meant phrases begin to overshadow the personal tragedy of lives abbreviated in ways that hold untold consequences for the future. The body of the man identified by his Dog Tags and the name badge on his uniform wasn’t just one of three Marines blown apart on a Haditha street. He was the son of Curtis and Jeanette; the brother of Carlos, Marisa and Maria; a surfer; a marathoner; a sports enthusiast, and a guy who loved Harleys and most of all kids.

Single, with no children of his own, Crocker began working with young people through the Police Activities League in 2003. The big, tough cop, who apprehended crack dealers and rounded up gang members, had a deep passion for nature and education. He supervised field trips to the Marine base at Camp Pendleton and the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He taught cardiopulmonary resuscitation, wrote a grant to start a hiking class and created an SAT preparatory workshop for high school students wanting to go to college.

“He was really a happy, jovial guy,” said PAL program supervisor at the time, Karen Humphrey. The “gung-ho” Marine, she said, “really loved kids.”

An unconventional police officer

His SMPD partner, Matt Rice, described Crocker as “an unconventional police officer” who served on the SWAT team but preferred serving a community center visited each day by about 200 kids. “He was his own man,” Officer Rice said.

To students at Hermosa Valley School, Major Rick made an indelible impression as their official pen pal in Iraq. In 2005, the student body bid him a sad farewell under a canopy of dark clouds in a schoolyard ceremony and presented a $3,400 check to officers of the SMPD so that Crocker’s work with young people could continue.

crocker-painting.jpgGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lowered the flag to half-staff at the state capital in Crocker’s honor; artist Kaziah painted an oil portrait of Crocker from a photograph and sent it to his parents, and in 2007 the California Legislature designated a segment of State Highway Route 10 within the city limits of Santa Monica as Ricardo A. Crocker Memorial Highway. Accounts of his death made the national press – from the Washington Post to the LA Times – and 1,000 mourners crowded a Santa Monica Catholic church to attend his funeral mass, distinguished by the coteries of uniformed Santa Monica Police and U.S. Marines.

We didn’t want to lose such an exceptional candidate

In his eulogy and later in interviews with the press, SMPD Chief Butts talked about hiring the extremely fit Marine captain, who had six months left to serve in the military when he first applied for a job at the department in 1995. “After interviewing Rick,” Butts said, “I did something I had never done, that was hold a police position open for him. We didn’t want to lose such an exceptional candidate.” Lieutenant Colonel William Costantini, one of Crocker’s commanding officers, said that of the 1,300 Marines trying to secure an area of western Iraq the size of West Virginia, the six members of Major Crocker’s civil affairs squad did the most important work, building schools, hospitals and talking to local leaders.

Crocker was “a legend” among the local populace of Al Anbar, according to Maj. Scott Kinner. “Every time I spoke with a local sheik, businessman, or civilian,” Kenner wrote in 2005 in a Fallen Heroes Memorial blog hosted by the Marine Corps, “[his] name and opinions were either on their lips or in their thoughts. ‘What does Major Crocker think?’ ‘Major Crocker got us the truck.’ When people think of helping the Iraqis, they picture someone like Major Crocker.”

Tricky Ricky

Fellow Marines called him “Tricky Ricky,” recalled Sgt. A.M. Randall of Southbridge, VA, “not because of women, but because he could play ball so well.” The unit leader’s upbeat attitude, his ready grin and ability to listen especially impressed those he worked with. He never talked down to people, no matter their rank, said Randall, who termed himself a “hard-headed Marine” until Major Crocker “put me gently back on track.”

Sabine, a German woman who met Crocker during a one-year stay in Hermosa Beach, spoke of his “great humor,” his dream of becoming a teacher, and how they planned to arrange a “Red carpet reception” for each other when they next met – either in Cologne, Germany or Hermosa. And Roy McGinnis of Westlake Village, CA, who first met Crocker in 1961 when they served in the same Marine unit and later interviewed him for a job at the SMPD, “cried like a baby” when learning his friend was gone. Even though Crocker was his subordinate, McGinnis said, “I always addressed him as ‘Mr. Crocker’ out of respect for his loyalty and honor for both the department and the Corps.”

She wanted him to come home safe, too

Sgt. Jack R. Williams, another of Crocker’s 3rd CAG unit, recalls a family day at Camp Pendleton, when Williams’ wife invited Crocker to their home for Cajun cooking and a big crab boil after their tour in Iraq ended. “When I told my wife about his death,” Williams said, “she was deeply saddened. She told me that she remembered Major Crocker saying that he would bring me home safe. She wanted him to come home safe, too.” [KBL]