One night in early November 1989, Tom Crawford, then a U.S. Army military policeman, went for his customary jog through the streets of Berlin, Germany, and bumped feet-first into history.
It was dark. Crawford found himself on an unfamiliar street, sniffing the stench of burning coal rising from dingy apartment chimneys. He inadvertently had jogged into East Berlin through a hole in what hours before had been the impenetrable Berlin Wall.
But the wall had come down Nov. 9 — at first in bits and pieces and then in huge, shattered slabs of concrete — as East and West Germans, armed only with chisels and hammers, tore through what had been the most visible symbol of the Iron Curtain and celebrated with champagne.
“I lived off-post near the Berlin Wall, and I had run right through a street where the wall had been,” said Crawford, who started a new job as Bartholomew County’s veterans service officer Wednesday. “I turned around and got back to the American sector.”
Tom Crawford file
Title: Veterans service officer, Bartholomew County
Background: 24-year veteran, retired as a U.S. Army military police investigator
Salary: $33,262 per year
Bartholomew County Veterans Service Office
Budget: $52,959 per year
Personnel: In addition to the full-time veterans service officer, the county budget allows an additional $11,651 per year to hire one or more part-time helpers.
Location: 440 Third St., Room 205, County Government Office Building
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday
Phone: 812-379-1540; fax 812-375-5444
Now, nearly a quarter-century later, the 51-year-old Crawford has done another about-face. He retired from the U.S. Army in March 2009 after three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and assorted tours of various other Army posts in Georgia, Germany, South Korea and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
After the Army, Crawford worked for a while as a corrections officer at the Johnson County jail in Franklin. Then, he became a flag crew member with Area Wide Protective, a private contractor that provides traffic management for road repair and construction workers.
Still, something was missing for the retired sergeant first class and father of three children.
“I consider helping military veterans the greatest way to give back to the community,” Crawford said in late December after the Bartholomew County Commissioners voted unanimously to hire him for the veterans service job.
The county’s Veterans Service Office generally is charged with helping veterans wade through federal rules and appeals when they seek benefits linked to their military careers, including health care and disability payments. Some local veterans who need help served as long ago as World War II, county officials say.
One recent estimate suggests Bartholomew County is home to more than 5,700 veterans, who receive $18.3 million a year in total Veterans Affairs expenditures, about half of that for education and health care.
“It’ll be great to talk with and help veterans,” said Crawford, who ended his military career as a supervisor of military police investigators while stationed with the 8th Military Police Brigade at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
“I’m a disabled veteran myself,” he said, pointing out that he sometimes requires medical care for joint pain at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Indianapolis.
A perceived lack of dependable county transportation to that hospital has been a bone of contention with some local veterans, who say a van purchased to haul disabled veterans to hospital appointments in Indianapolis no longer is being used consistently for that purpose.
Veterans groups say county services for ex-military personnel have been hit-or-miss in recent months, but most are encouraged by Crawford’s military background and training as he steps into his new county role.
“He has more than 20 years in the military, and that means he knows about veterans’ needs,” said Rick Caldwell, senior vice commander for AmVets in Indiana. Caldwell will rise to become AmVets Indiana commander this summer.
“He seems to know the process, and that’s another plus,” Caldwell added. “Him being retired military means he knows how to be a veterans advocate.”
This is the first time Bartholomew County has employed a full-time veterans service officer. In the past, the job was part time, supplemented by a full-time secretarial worker. Local veterans complained about what they perceived as poor performance and a lack of responsiveness from the part-time office.
Crawford said he intends to reach out to local veterans groups for advice and suggestions about problems he should tackle.
He also intends to visit retirement centers in search of forgotten World War II veterans who might not be aware of federal benefits available to them, he said.
Making the veterans service officer a full-time job is a good step for the county, Crawford said.
“Having the office open every day is important, even if I’m just there to field phone calls and answer veterans’ questions,” he said.
“We are ready for a good veterans service officer, that’s for sure,” said Larry Durnil, a local veteran who was critical of past county efforts. “I am with him (Crawford) 100 percent. Our local veterans want to be part of helping improve things.”
Larry Kleinhenz, chairman of the Bartholomew County Board of Commissioners, said he hopes Crawford’s enthusiasm translates into local veterans receiving all the benefits they’re owed.
“We’re all impressed with your energy and enthusiasm, but it will take that to accomplish what we’d like to see you accomplish,” Kleinhenz told Crawford after the 3-0 vote hiring him two days after Christmas.
Crawford already has completed a training class offered by the state Veterans Affairs office in Indianapolis designed to bring new veterans service officers up to speed on the latest federal regulations and procedures.