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Posted: May 2, 2013 6:45 p.m.

Mecca: Veteran serves in war and peace

The American Legion state adjutant has said that Post 77 in Conyers is the model for all American Legions in Georgia. One member has been instrumental in helping Post 77 earn that claim to fame.

Jim Crutchfield has served as chaplain, finance officer, adjutant and commander. Constantly working on various veterans events, he even finds time to serve on the board of directors for Honor Flight Conyers and the Walk of Heroes Veterans Memorial Park.

Born at Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta on May 6, 1949, Crutchfield graduated from East Atlanta High School in 1967 before attending Georgia Southwestern in Americus. When asked his field of study, Crutchfield said, "Fun."

With the war in Vietnam raging, Uncle Sam ended educational deferments for students majoring in "fun." Crutchfield said, "I knew a deferment chopping block was headed my way, so I enlisted in the Air Force in 1971."

After basic at Lackland AFB in San Antonio and Personnel School at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, he received a special-duty assignment with the Air Force Security Service. His port-of-call would be the Strategic Air Command at Homestead, Fla., southwest of Miami. "Without getting into too much detail, we were a linguist outfit monitoring friend and foe alike, " he said.

Next stop:

Udorn AFB, Thailand. He said, "I worked outside the ‘Elephant Cage’ (so named due to its design), but we did the same thing, monitoring and watching friends and foes." After Thailand, Crutchfield served one year at Warner-Robins AFB before a seven-year stint at Atlanta’s MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station). While there, he earned a business administration degree from Georgia State.

When he was chosen to open a MEPS in Tampa, Crutchfield’s organizational and "people skills" earned the Tampa MEPS recognition as second best in the country.

He said, "We did not get first place, because we’d only been open for 10 months. To be considered for first place, you had to be operational for a year. Crutchfield, nevertheless, was awarded "Military Member of the Year" for 1980.

After receiving a top-secret security clearance, Crutchfield reported to the U.S. Central Command at McDill AFB in Tampa, where he instructed high-ranking officers on their presentations of awards and decorations.

Aug. 2, 1990:

Saddam Hussein invades and occupies the tiny oil-rich country of Kuwait. On Aug. 7, President George H. W. Bush commences Desert Shield, the huge build-up of American and coalition forces in Saudi Arabia to prevent further aggression from Hussein. The Iraqi leader is notified to remove his troops from Kuwait by Jan. 15, 1991, or a 34-nation coalition would force him out.

United States forces made up73 percent of the striking force. Crutchfield was en route to his first war after 20 years of peaceful service to his country.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia:

Crutchfield is assigned to MODA (Ministry of Defense and Aviation), the Saudi equivalent of America’s Pentagon.

"I felt fairly safe at MODA, since we were seven floors below ground," he said. "Security was tight because Gen. (Norman) Schwarzkopf worked on one side of the hallway and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia worked on the other side."

As chief of administration, part of Crutchfield’s duties was to build briefings for Schwarzkopf.

He said, "The general would drop by on a regular basis and sit down at my desk. No war talk, just personal questions from the general, like ‘How you doing, Jim?’ or ‘How’s the family back home?’ He was the real deal. Schwarzkopf cared about his people, and we knew it."

Crutchfield said he will always remember the day that Schwarzkopf unleashed Desert Storm.

"The general had our chaplain say a prayer in the war room, then we heard a recording of Lee Greenwood’s ‘God Bless the USA.’ After that, Schwarzkopf calmly picked up the phone and ordered the war to start."

Nobody knew what lay ahead. Caution reigned supreme.

"We all had gas masks," Crutchfield said. "The mask was never out of my reach." Nor was the .45-caliber Colt strapped to his side.

Long working days and stress made sleep difficult; so did Saddam’s Scud missiles. Crutchfield said, "One Scud hit less than a half-mile from our quarters. I woke up on the floor. It demolished a two-story building. When I returned that night, the rubble was gone. The area looked like a park."

Culture shock was another problem.

"Saudi women couldn’t drive," he said. "So our female soldiers only drove military vehicles and had to be in uniform. They couldn’t even drive rental cars. On buses Saudi women and boys under 12 years old sat in the back separated from the adult males by a partition."

The VIPs Crutchfield interacted with included Gen. Colin Powell and then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. He said, "They were regular guys, and I trusted their leadership 100 percent."

With retirement approaching, Crutchfield was sent home before Desert Storm ran its course.

"I wanted to stay, but orders are orders; I had to go."

"We did our job by kicking Saddam out of Kuwait, but I heard Schwarzkopf was not a happy camper when he was ordered not to go after Saddam," he said.

Crutchfield worked as a probation officer in Tampa after retiring. He and his wife Susan have been married for 35 years. They’ve lived in Conyers for nine years. Their eldest son served in the U.S. Army as an air traffic controller and now supervises controllers at Hartsfield International.

His final thoughts: "Let me extend an invitation to our veterans to join the Legion Family. We do a lot of good, but there’s more to be done."

Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at aveteransstory@gmail.com or aveteransstory.us.

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