Corpsman down, CPO Holly Crabtree's fight for life
"Today we celebrate serving with a hero"
October 8, 2015
I was drawn to this photo of Hospital Corpsman Chief Petty Officer (CPO) Holly Crabtree's retirement, shown here, taken at Naval Base Bremerton, Maine. She was medically retired on August 23, 2012 as she works to recover from a sniper attack in Iraq on April 15, 2010. Chief Crabtree is saluted by her colleagues as she departs the retirement ceremony, walking with the help of a cane. At the time of her retirement, she was a 14 year veteran, 32 years old. I will simply say here an enemy sniper shot her in the head. Incredibly, she survived, but not without a fight, a fight that continues to this day.
Speaking about why he came to her retirement, he simply said:
"I got word of it (the retirement ceremony) and said it would be my honor to be there."
As an aside, Crabtree was born in Tacoma.
There are, from my vantage, two main stories here. First, CPO Crabtree's fight to survive and endure. Second, her naval training and the kind of mission that put her in harm's way on that day. These are both very consuming.
Crabtree's fight to survive and endure
On April 15, 2010, while serving in Iraq, Crabtree was assigned to a SEAL Team operating near Ramadi in Anbar province. And that is about as much I can find about the specific operation. But I have acquired some insights which will be the second part of this story.
Then Petty Officer First Class (PO1) Crabtree was in the field with a special forces team. An enemy sniper struck her with a shot that pierced her helmet near her left temple, entered her skull, and came to rest behind the ear. She says she remembers being hit, and would say later:
"The first thing I remember after I woke up is that I was still in the Humvee. I was embarrassed. I thought I passed out from the heat." But then she could see her arms were covered in blood.
She was evacuated right away to a field hospital. When she got there, her case was classified as "Hope Trauma," which I understand meant little hope for recovery. She endured a six hour surgical operation and was not expected to live through it. Incredibly, she survived and was stabilized. She was then evacuated from Iraq to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Maryland.
It took her about three months in the hospital before she became fully aware of what was going on around her. Best of all, she began recovering. That said, she had paralysis on the right side, and suffered a traumatic brain injury which affected her memory, speech and motor skills. She commented, "Things were tough or a couple of years." She added, "I wanted to snap my fingers and get better. I was going through depression so bad as well as trying to get better so hard I was hurting myself … I stopped eating. I wasn't hungry. The only thing that kept me going was my daughter, Leah."
She was then transferred back to her unit's home base at McDill AFB, Florida for physical rehabilitation at the James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital and ultimate discharge from the Navy. From news reports, she was a bit aggravated that she was going to be discharged. She said, "I wanted to stay." She had learned how to walk again with help, but she still had problems with her right arm and vision. She commented, "It cut my vision in half." This is a photo of Holly Crabtree with her sister, Sarah Whatley, in the hospital. Wheatley is an Army sergeant first class.
I found an article published by EpilepsyU.com 2013 which said that Crabtree had been getting seizures every week or two since she was shot. Crabtree has commented, "They surprise me," meaning she could not tell they were coming. She reportedly had had two strokes, partial paralysis and epilepsy. The photo shows Crabtree leaving a session with a psychologist at the VA hospital in Seattle.
The organization EpilepsyU.com provides an online resource that not only offers information and epilepsy education, but is a community for contacts, socialization, support, events, and much more. The organization said, "Epilepsy is a common side effect veterans experience after suffering head trauma at war." It added that doctors had managed to bring down the frequency of Crabtree's seizures from three a week to one or fewer using medication.
Epilepsy is not a disease and is not contagious. It is a brain disorder, in CPO Crabtree's case, caused by the sniper's shot to the head. This disorder can cause strange sensations, emotions and behaviors, sometimes convulsions, muscle spasms and a loss of consciousness. There are many different types of seizures.
The Navy intended to retired PO1 Crabtree at that rank. However, she studied Navy regulations and found that she was eligible to take the exam for chief petty officer (CPO). She had problems reading it, so a CPO read the questions to her, she took answered the questions, she passed it, and was promoted to Chief Hospital Corpsman in 2011. That meant, among other things, the Navy would retire her as a CPO instead of the lower ranking PO1. That's huge, since Crabtree has a daughter, Leah.
Today, Crabtree walks with a cane, is legally blind and has difficulty with her memory.
She retired from the Navy to Sequim, Washington in 2012.
Crabtree was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal four times during her 14 years in the Navy.
Crabtree takes online classes through Trident University International as she works toward a bachelor's degree in environmental health that she expects to receive in 2016. Here you see her practicing her marksmanship.
She eventually wants to earn a master's degree that would allow her to work with injured veterans. Continuing on, pressing forward are important to her. She has said, "I can still move my hand. I can still walk a little bit. I'm still good. I can do something. You know what, I can keep on going, do it one more time."
She has said, “I'd like to work for the Veterans Administration in Seattle or Oregon." Noting that MOH recipient Petry works in Tacoma with injured veterans, she has commented: "I want to do what he does."
And she has added, “I don't regret anything that happened. I love the Navy. I love my job … This is our job.”
It should be noted that while in the Haley VA Hospital, she "inspired and motivated several critical wounded soldiers and instilled a positive, can-do spirit." For that, she received her fourth Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and, of course, she received the Purple Heart, while still in the hospital (photo shown above).
She said, "I plan on still helping wounded warriors and seeing as many as I can to give them encouragement to keep on going. I want people to know this injury changed my whole life, but to tell wounded people there's still hope."
This photo shows her talking to students at a school outreach.
Holly Crabtree is a graduate of Port Angeles High School. While in high school, she played three sports, referred to in one report as "an athletic rambunctious young woman." Well, she participated in the 2011 Wounded Warrior Games and threw out the first pitch at a University of South Florida baseball game.
In 2012, she went with a group of other combat-wounded veterans to a remote river in Alaska on what's known as the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge, designed for those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It was a pack-rafting challenge. She went on the trip just two weeks after being released from the trauma center at the Haley VA hospital. She carried a heavy pack on her back, slid down a rocky hill on purpose, and adapted to two weeks of the rigors of the wilderness. She walked, tripped, fell and slept on rocky ground, and experience being drenched by rain. In this photo she is climbing up a "hill." I'm not sure which one she is, but I think she is number three in line. She worked with her team to navigate and row raft on a cold and swift river, using her left arm to row. Oh yes, the mountains were still covered with snow!
This photo shows Crabtree sooting an AR-15 as part of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge. She reportedly hit the target in a tight grouping, the first time she had fired the weapon since she was wounded.
Following this rafting trip, she said:
"I was at the point where I'd given up hope. I was doing that because I'd locked myself in a box. I took a chance and went on this trip and it turned out to be the most awesome and therapeutic thing I could ever walk into. I don't even feel like the same person," she says. "So I encourage anyone and everyone to take the step outside that box and try something. Now that I have that faith in myself, it's like there are countless people I can have that faith for."
Crabtree has discovered a love of sailing and uses the sport as part of her recovery.
As an aside, not only was CPO Crabtree an inspiration to her colleagues in the hospital during her recovery, but clearly she has been an inspiration to her daughter, Leah and her community of Sequin, Washington. And Leah is becoming an inspiration for her classmates and community. Leah in 2014, in lieu birthday gifts, asked her schoolmates to bring food donations instead of gifts The rest was 200 lbs. of donations to the Sequin Food Bank. Leah's mom, Holly, said, "Growing up, the food bank helped my family. I am proud of Leah and she knows it helped our family and she just wanted to do the same thing for other people." The Food Bank executive director believes Leah is the youngest donor yet.
Each year, the organization Hope For The Warriors® presents awards to honor the courage of wounded service members, their families and the families of the fallen. The organization was founded in 2006 by a group of military wives. The award is known as the Vigiano Family Hope & Courage Awards that will be given to service members and military families who have demonstrated both hope and courage in facing challenges after their injuries. It is named in honor of the two Vigiano sons, NYPD Detective Joseph Vigiano and FDNY fireman John Vigiano II, who were killed as a result of the September 11 attacks in New York. Their father, John Vigiano, Sr., shown here,is a former Marine and retired FDNY Captain who has volunteered his time and resources to help Gold Star families and wounded heroes. He is on the honorary council of the Hope for Warriors.
Holly Crabtree received this award in 2012. This photo shows CPO Crabtree with her daughter Leah receiving the award with actor Gary Sinise, who serves on the Hope for the Warriors Advisory Council. Please note the Expeditionary Warfare pin above CPO Crabtree's medals.
Crabtree's Navy training and her combat mission with special forces
CPO Holly Crabtree has certainly fought a great fight to recover from her wounds. Finding out about this fight of hers has been fairly easy for me, though of course there is no way I could have experienced what she personally went through inside. But finding out why she, a hospital corpsman, was out on a special forces combat patrol in Ramadi, Iraq has not been so easy. That is most likely due to the Navy wanting to keep the special operation as quiet as is possible in our society.
All the information I have assembled here came from news reports. One problem in dealing with these is that the reports about the mission on which she served were varied, they were very brief, and often conflicting. There was a consensus that the mission was near Ramadi, a very violent and contested place for Americans throughout the war, and one that remains violent and contested to this day. There was also a consensus that she was on a mission with special forces. Some reports said with SEALs, some with the Army, and some joint Army and Navy special forces. Some reports said her patrol was ambushed, some made no mention of the character of the enemy attack although there does seem to be a consensus an enemy sniper shot her.
I was intrigued by why she was out there in Ramadi with special forces. I didn't find any news reports that described this in any kind of detail. But put them all together, and I think I have been able to draw a picture.
As soon as one reviews her training, one learns Holly Crabtree is special, and she certainly reinforced that from the time she was shot in the head to this day.
I believe her maiden name was Engel. She graduated from Port Angeles High School in 1998, home of the "Roughriders." I mentioned earlier that while in high school, she played three sports, and was referred to in one report as "an athletic rambunctious young woman." This alone provides great insight into how she is put together.
She enlisted in the Navy in 1997 while a high school junior in the delayed entry program. One advantage of this program is that she attended periodic navy training classes while still in high school to get a leg up on what Navy life is all about. After graduation from high school she attended eight weeks basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois, near Chicago.
Once finished with basic training, she attended basic hospital corpsman school, also at Great Lakes. It is often referred to as an "A" School. Its responsibility is to field Basic Hospital Corpsmen into the fleet, whether at sea or on land. So far, quite normal.
Following this, she was assigned to the Navy's Expeditionary Warfare School which trains corpsmen and other specialists to work with special operations teams.
The EXW qualification is a relatively new program, established in 2006. There is a very good seven minute video about this training. The EXW qualification is awarded to enlisted USN members, and select United States Coast Guard personnel temporarily assigned to the U.S. Navy, who satisfactorily complete the required qualification course and pass a qualification board hearing. The qualification was developed to provide a chance for enlisted sailors in the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command community (naval personnel serving in a maritime security or maritime combat related role) to earn a warfare qualification.
Core qualification skills include weapons qualification and maintenance, marksmanship, land navigation, field communications, and expeditionary camp deployment. In sum, the idea is to develop expeditionary skills among the naval enlisted force.
The Navy urges Hospital Corpsmen E-5 and above to earn EXW qualification. Hospital Corpsmen especially are urged to seek out challenging and diverse assignments including various Expeditionary Combat Command duties. The program is open to enlisted men and women.
PO1 Crabtree did not go through this training just for "yuks." She was next assigned to the Navy SEALs in Iraq. My educated guess is she arrived in Iraq in spring 2009 or thereabouts. This photo shows her in Iraq prior to a mission. The Peninsula Daily News reported that this photo was taken just before she went on the mission in which she was wounded, April 15 2010.
Dates and timelines can be important in military warfare. The official start of the Iraq War of 2003, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," was March 19, 2003. So she was not with the invasion force. In fact, she was there from 2009-2010. That means she was there somewhere during h withdrawals.
Figuring out exactly when US troops withdrew from Iraq is no easy task. US forces began to withdraw in 2007. The last troops left on December 18, 2011. So she was there toward the end of the withdrawals.
For purposes of our discussions surrounding CPO Crabtree and the operation in Ramadi, US forces "turned over" security responsibilities for Anbar Province on September 1, 2008. Special forces had largely been withdrawn by this time. The Marines in Anbar Province were replaced by Army units in January 2010. So the picture in the Ramadi area on April 15, 2010 is that most US forces had withdrawn, the Iraqis were largely in charge, but quite clearly some US special forces remained, specifically TF-W forces, which should come as no surprise.
Indeed two high level insurgent leaders, Al-Baghdadi, the leader of an umbrella group opposed to the US presence, and Al-Masri, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) were killed by a combined Iraqi-US nighttime raid on April 18, 2010 in the Thar Thar Region of Iraq, just north of Ramadi. My gut instinct is the US forces with the Iraqis were special forces who, among other things, had trained many of these Iraqi troops. This event occurred three days after Crabtree was so critically wounded.
The Army withdrew its combat units in August 2010.
So let's move ahead.
Crabtree was said to be providing medical support at the time of her injury to a couple of SEAL teams. But another report said she was trained to serve on cultural support teams that assisted Green Berets, Rangers and SEALs on combat operations. She was fluent in Arabic which was a great advantage. The Tampa Tribune indicated that Crabtree was selected to go on SEAL missions because of her language skills. She and another female military member on her team, from the Army, were tasked to interact with Iraqi women during missions, and an female Army Soldier was on the mission with Crabtree on April 15, 2010. The photo shows an Army female engagement team in Afghanistan, but you get the idea.
An obscure report said that on April 10, 2010, the day she was wounded, she was on patrol with Army Civil Affairs attached to Special Operations Task Force West near al Ramadi. This makes sense and is probably accurate.
The operative phrase here is "Special Operations Task Force West."
I'll now back away from specifics on CPO Crabtree and see what this Task Force West was all about.
Task Force West (TF West) has been known by several names: Task Force 145 (TF 145) and Task Force Dagger are two. It also also undergone several evolutions over time. TF West (TF-W) was subordinate to the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC. So that's where we'll start.
We do know JSOC was established in 1980. It is a joint command, which means more than one military service participates in it. For the record, it is a study organization tasked to look at special operations (SO) requirements, techniques, interoperability and standardization. It is supposed to plan and organize SO exercises and training and develop tactics. But I believe its core job was and is to execute SO missions worldwide. It conducts covert operations to combat terrorism, counter potential terrorist threats, and a wide variety of special missions. It is more than a study house. It is an operational war fighting command. I am sure of that. It is also a global outfit, tasked to go anywhere at any time.
It is headquartered at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. I have not been able to find a photo of the JSOC Headquarters.\,which tells you something about it.
There are multiple military units assigned to JSOC. We know about a few, good enough for my work here, and we likely do not know about others.
The Army's Delta Force is one. It is formally known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD Delta), it is subordinate to the US Army's Special Operations Command (USASOC), but receives its operational tasking from JSOC. In other words, ASOC has to be sure it has forces ready to do what JSOC needs to them to do. ASOC is composed of Green Berets. Delta Force is therefore also composed of Green Berets. It is a relatively small organization, perhaps with 1,000 Soldiers assigned, of whom only 200-300 are involved in what are known as direct action missions. These are short-duration offensives designed to seize, capture or destroy a target, or recover specific people or material. Delta Force has three squadrons, A, B and C. The photo is drawn from an Army video promoting Delta Force.
I should underscore here that the Green Berets' core mission is to train and assist local military forces around the world. Now this does not mean they spend all their time in the school house. To train foreign military forces requires the teachers, the Green Berets, to go out on missions so they can observe, evaluate the training, and advise.
The Navy's contribution to JSOC is known as the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU. It is composed entirely of SEAL Team 6 (ST-6). This is interesting because ST-6 was dissolved in 1987. A new unit named DEVGRU was formed and was for all practical purposes the successor to ST-6. As a result many people refer to ST-6 as the Navy's contribution to JSOC. DEVGRU is subordinate to the Naval Special Warfare Command but operationally responsible to JSOC. DEVGRU has seven squadrons. Four of these are line squadrons, also called assault teams. There are about 50 Sailors in each, divided into three groups, which can be further divided into small teams. There is also a boat squadron and a reconnaissance and surveillance squadron, and finally a squadron to conduct training and member selection.
The Air Force's contribution to JSOC is mainly the 24th Special Tactics Squadron (STS). It is subordinate to the 724th Special Tactics Group, Pope AFB, North Carolina, which in turn is subordinate to the 24th Special Operations Wing (SOW), subordinate to the USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC), but like the others is operationally tasked by JSOC. The AFSOC has several STSs, but the 24th is the one assigned to respond to JSOC tasking. The 24th STS is comprised mainly of Air Force ground forces: Combat Controllers (CCT), Pararescue (PJ), Special Operations Weather Teams (SOWT), Tactical Air Control Parties (TACP), and Special Operations Surgical Teams (SOST).
As an aside, the old-timers will say PJs are not "grunts" but rather an airborne force which responds to search and rescue requirements from helicopters and hoists to lift up downed airmen. They still do that, but their dominant use in JSOC in more modern times is to be inserted on the ground usually by helicopter, behind enemy lines in order to find, treat and extract friendly forces such as downed pilots or wounded special operators or even groups of special operators in a real bind with the enemy.
Lastly, there is a Joint Aviation Unit assigned to JSOC. Its composition can fluctuate according to needs. For example, the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, an ASOC organization, and other AFSOC STSs and aircraft can be assigned temporarily.
For the moment, that is where I am going to leave JSOC. What I have described so broadly are highly secretive special forces units, known in some circles as "Tier 1" teams. Arguably the 24th STS is the least secretive, but secretive nonetheless.
That's a very broad look at JSOC. I want to get to dig down to the task force level in Iraq, and gain some insight into what kind of operation PO1 Crabtree was on when she was so severely wounded.
So let's go to the subject of task forces assigned to JSOC in Iraq. There have been many Tier 1 task forces employed in Iraq and now Afghanistan. They have been formed to conduct specific operations. For example, TF 20 was set up in Iraq at the end of 2003 to hunt down and capture leading members of Saddam Hussein's regime who were designated high value targets. TF 121 was tasked in July 2003 to track down Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and their colleagues.
PO1 Crabtree is said to have been part of Task Force West (TF-W) special forces operating near Ramadi, Iraq on April 15, 2010. Not much is known about TF-W. What some think they know can be quite hard to untangle, and I'm not going to even try to untangle very much.
JSOC Task Forces participated in the 2003 invasion of Iraq right from the beginning, probably even before. WE do know there were two major JSOC Task Forces to participate in the 2003 invasion. One was TF-North (TF-N), also known as TF Viking. The other was TF-W, known as TF Dagger. Both, for special force operations, were rather large.
TF-Viking was mostly US Army special forces supported by an airborne brigade and Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). It was responsible for the northern front designed to secure Kirkuk, Mosul, and the northern oil fields and prevent 13 Iraqi Army divisions from defending Baghdad or reinforcing defensive operations.
Henceforth I am going to focus on TF-W/TF-Dagger.
The invasion began on March 19, 2003. The US declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, 2003. The US occupied Baghdad and other key cities, and the government went into hiding. Allied forces moved almost solely to conventional operations. As a result, special operations were scaled back. Most US special operations forces left Iraq in May and June 2003.
However, some did remain. My own editorial feeling is they almost always remain in some form. During May and June 2003, TF-W was re-designated TF Arabian Peninsula (TF-AP) and was headquartered in Baghdad. It drew down. After wading through the fluff, I think it ended up with mainly two 5th Army Special Forces Group (SFG) battalions and the Navy's ST-6.
McChrystal placed a great degree of emphasis to western Iraq, and focused on mid-level insurgents and began conducting daylight operations. Furthermore, McChrystal is said to have become obsessed with taking on al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Steve Niva, one of few academic analysts to look at JSOC closely, wrote this about TF-145's activities:
"By the summer of 2005, JSOC teams undertook an estimated 300 raids per month, hitting targets every night, eventually turning their focus from traditional high-value targets to suspected local players and middle mangers in insurgent networks."
The Army Times reported about TF-145 on April 28, 2006 and provided more insight into TF-W. The Times said TF-145 was headquartered at Balad AB, Iraq and was divided into four subordinate task forces: West, Central, North and Black. The article said TF-W was organized around ST-6 with Army Rangers in support, probably from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The newspaper reported further that each task force was to be highly autonomous, able to conduct raids without much, if any, higher approval. I will mention as an aside, that this created tensions between JSOC and conventional force commanders. The former was conducting raids largely on its own while conventional force commanders were trying to work with local Iraqis and conduct their own operations, often with higher authority approval required.
I believe TF-W remained largely a force drawn from ST-6 (perhaps with the 75th Rangers and a small element of Delta operators), However, by 2009 it was subordinate to TF-77, having replaced TF-145. Its mission was primarily to hunt down AQI leaders.
To my knowledge, TF-W was still operational, based at Al Assad AB in 2010, with ST-6 as its core supported by 75th Rangers and some Delta operators. The base had been the home of the II Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), but most of its forces concluded their operations from the base in March 2010, one month before PO1 Crabtree was shot.
Arguably one of the most important missions of the JSOC task forces, perhaps even the most important, was to collect intelligence that would ultimately enable JSOC to take action. For my purposes here, that includes spending time in the villages, eating and befriending villagers, listening to them and asking them questions for intelligence purposes.
It also includes tending to medical needs in the village as a means of befriending and gaining trust. These are central features of a counterinsurgency strategy which the US tried to implement in Iraq.
Marc Ambinder, editor-in-chief of The Week, and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, has argued this way about this point:
"They (JSOC) are the tactical intelligence of choice, they also have the operational capacity to act on that intelligence. So they generate intelligence, they analyze it, and they act on it, all in one package."
Conclusion about the mission
With that in mind, let's get back to CPO Holly Crabtree. On April 15, 2010 she was on a patrol mission near Ramadi, I believe with members of ST-6 and perhaps some Delta operators. She had another female partner, and I believe she was Army assigned to Army Civil Affairs. While anything can happen during one of these patrols, at the outset I believe her entire team's job was to collect intelligence, mainly with a view toward finding enemy leaders. Her job, of course, would include caring for wounded comrades and to providing medical support to local villagers. She has remarked:
“When we walked into a village, they would know I was medical because I had the big pack."
I think that comment says a lot about why she was shot.
The idea of putting women in with special forces developed early on in Iraq, and then spread to Afghanistan. The initial thinking was that when a team entered a village, the men in the team were mostly confined to talking to men in the village to collect information and befriend. So adding women enabled them to establish contact with women in the village, who could number more than half of the village. Having such contact not only would improve US military relations with the villagers, but would also uncover a great source of intelligence.
I believe she was struck down by an enemy sniper, who probably recognized her as providing medical care to the villagers, which was something that the villagers would appreciate, and which was something the enemy would not.
CPO Holly Crabtree is one helluva woman, one helluva Sailor, one helluv-an American, and, by all indications a fabulous medic and mother. She has paid heavy dues for her service. As she has said:
“I don't regret anything that happened. I love the Navy. I love my job … This is our job.”