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How 9/11 changed the lives of an area couple who served the nation

U.S. Army Sgt. Andrae Crawford Camp Victory Iraq 2006.  Submitted

U.S,. Army Sgt. Andrae Crawford at Camp Victory, Iraq, in 2006. Submitted

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Updated: October 12, 2013 6:08AM

Since the infamous events of Sept. 11, 2001, it’s been common for pundits and talk show hosts to remind us all that our lives were changed forever that day.

For a Hanover Park couple, the adage actually has resonance beyond having to go through security checks at airports or fretting about who is spying on what we are all doing on the Internet.

Twelve years ago on Sept. 11, Andrae Crawford and Bethanie Block had known each other for three years and were engaged to be married that Dec. 21.

Both had been in the Army since 1998 — Crawford having wanted to be a trooper, Block inspired by the Demi Moore movie, “GI Jane.” In 2001, the two were stationed in Georgia, with Block at Hunter Army Airfield and Crawford at Fort Stewart.

Crawford was a motor supply sergeant and recalled that about three minutes after the first plane hit one of the twin World Trade Center towers, word already had spread across the base as people scrambled to react to what seemed like an action movie.

Block was assigned to a transportation unit, driving Rangers to a training area and getting ready to go on an overnight mission.

“It was me and a whole bunch of dudes,” she said. “I was the only female among a platoon of males. The next thing you know, I was tasked to be deployed with them.”

Block recalled that the rest of the day involved a lot of standing around on hot concrete and waiting for orders. People were being called off leave.

Block wound up getting home by 8 p.m., and Crawford wasn’t back at the couple’s place until 10:30 p.m.

Headed downrange

Both remained stateside, but midway through 2002, Crawford learned he would be sent with the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) or (3rd ID) to what was being called training in Kuwait.

Everyone was being deployed, the couple recalled, with the only exception being made for pregnancy. That meant, despite a torn ACL and being on crutches, in November Crawford was notified he would be heading to Kuwait in January.

He deployed, and 20 days later that same month Block was sent to Kuwait with 24th Ord Co., 87 CSB, Combat Support Battalion.

When all this hit, Block said, “I never came to grips with the fact we might be die or never see each other again. We never really thought about that.”

Crawford wound up being part of the troops that spearheaded the surge from Kuwait into Iraq which took a middle route to Baghdad. Within a month, the forces had secured the capital’s airport.

The only resistance along the way seemed to be from what turned out to be Saddam’s Medina Division and other militias loyal to him, the couple recalled.

The two only saw each other once in Kuwait before the war in Iraq began in earnest, in a holding area in the desert near the border between the two nations.

Block found her way to the tent where her husband was sleeping and decided to hide on his cot, under his sleeping bag. But Crawford’s reaction to the surprise was that he was tired.

“He said, ‘Oh, hi,’ as if he saw me the day before,” Block said.

That prompted Block — who outranked her husband — to demand that he do push-ups.

During the push into Baghdad, Block’s unit provided a first-of-its-kind rolling ammunition supply point (ASP), issuing out all sorts of ammunition to units advancing ahead as they made their way to the capital.

Blowing up ammo

Once Saddam’s army was defeated, Block was stationed at Forward Operating Base Dogwood, about 45 minutes from the Baghdad airport, where she worked long hours sorting, inventorying and doling out U.S. ammunition, then eventually was a liaison officer.

Work also included collecting and sorting enemy ammunition of all sorts confiscated by American soldiers. To get rid of the ammo, there were controlled blows — and in the heat of the desert, things sometimes would explode unexpectedly.

There were daily sandstorms to contend with — like clockwork, between 5 and 6 p.m. — burning human waste, and washing with baby wipes.

“Bathing sucked,” Block said. “And prior to leaving Iraq, the ASP holding the foreign ammo blew up and sent everyone to evacuate to a radius of three miles.”

Crawford’s supply and laundry runs earned him a reputation as someone who could get whatever his unit needed. His unit’s inventiveness included making four-seat toilets with wood and barrels and makeshift showers.

The war lingered, and by July 5, 2003, Block was back in Georgia. Crawford remained stationed at the airport through late August of that year before returning home with recurring knee trouble.

Block next was deployed from August 2004 through July 2005, this time to Kuwait. What she recalled of this tour of duty was how the politics had set in, with the base strictly run and rules followed as if soldiers were back stateside instead of bordering a war zone.

Crawford was sent back to Baghdad Jan. 2, 2006, to Camp Victory, the Joint Operations Command headquarters, where his job was intel, doing route reconnaissance. By this point, troops were dealing with roadside bombing, suicide bombers, forced-into-suicide bombers and ambushes.

Crawford was in Baghdad when Saddam was captured, then hanged about a mile from where he was stationed. “But business went on as usual that day,” he said.

Crawford wound up staying less than four months, having injured his knee once more, this time while doing sit-ups. Still, Crawford said he almost was sent back to Baghdad eight months after his fourth knee surgery — this one at Walter Reed National Medical Center in Maryland. Finally, highers-up decided that he was disabled enough not to be sent to a war zone, and he was stationed in Germany.

Civilian life

Block was honorably discharged from the Army on Sept. 30, 2005, and had to cut through red tape to join her husband in Europe. Somehow, paperwork had Crawford listed as being single. Crawford remained in the Army until his honorable discharge Oct. 22, 2008.

“We moved from Germany back to the U.S. and Hanover Park on Aug. 24, 2008. I asked my mom if we could live in with her for six months, then it turned out to be three years, and eventually we bought the home two years ago,” Block said.

These days, Crawford is taking classes at the University of Phoenix campus in Schaumburg to earn a degree in business management. He is working as a manager at the Sports Authority store in Woodridge.

Block is attending Elgin Community College, studying to be a personal trainer, and is working at both Dundee Township Park District fitness centers.

She is founder and former president of a veterans organization called Military Branches United (MBU) at the college, where there are more than 300 former military enrolled. But Block said she has found small interest for growing the group.

“I’m trying to bring recognition to the school of what a veteran is,” Block said. Many younger people seem to think all veterans are older and male, she said.

Crawford said that “people are ignorant about people who served.” In particular, he is frustrated that companies pay lip service to employing veterans but don’t appreciate the skill sets veterans such as he have to offer.

“The Army spent $197,000 to train me as a cartographer,” Crawford said. As such, he learned to read multi-dimensional maps to help operations in a war zone in 2006 during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Block mentioned she had security clearances and was responsible for inventory, equipment, and personnel. Some businesses seem reluctant to hire veterans because of the mistaken notion that they will be called back to duty, she said.

Both Block and Crawford said they are dealing with service-related injuries and PTSD — though the Veterans Administration is reluctant to recognize they are coping with the latter. To that end, Block said she has been trying to get VA benefits for three years.

She had one friend commit suicide, a man who, “aside from just being a great soldier, with determination to be an officer, shot himself in a closet.”

Proud to serve

Still, both are glad they served.

While the reason for going into Iraq seemed dubious to most, Crawford said, “We liberated the country from a tyrant. And we helped women there become freer.”

Block said the military helped her come out of her shell and build her self-confidence.

“You gain a sense of responsibility and purpose,” Block said.

“You learn that nothing is impossible or hard, that when you are assigned a task, you get it done — and that working hard means actually working,” Crawford said.

“The best thing was I met him,” Block said. “I miss the Army. It gave me pride and purpose. I feel that I lost my identity after I got out.”

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