(News-Press.com) - While other Southwest Florida sexagenarians were busy sleeping in hammocks, golfing or watching the sunset, Fort Myers' Richard Crawford was climbing into mine-resistant military vehicles in the most dangerous part of the world.
At 61, the former Fort Myers DEA chief was talked out of retirement to serve as an embedded law enforcement professional in Iraq. After a tour advising the Marines on investigating roadside bombs, Crawford was recruited again in 2010. This time, the military shipped the 64-year-old to Afghanistan.
After destroying bombs on a sunny November day, Crawford's military vehicle was struck by a powerful roadside explosive. The 28,000-pound mine-resistant vehicle flipped in the air, injuring Crawford and the four other Marines.
Crawford suffered a broken left eye socket and a gash under his eye.
"The bomb was on the side of a paved road so that took some of the force out of the explosion even though it flipped the car," Crawford said. "Had that been a dirt road, I probably wouldn't be here."
Crawford will be honored with the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart today in Camp Lejeune, N.C. Crawford's acceptance of the 2014 Medal for the Defense of Freedom award, given annually to civilians killed or wounded while serving with the U.S. military, adds a capstone to an astonishing military career. Crawford received a 1970 Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam.
"It's special because this makes it over 40 years between Purple Hearts," Crawford said. "There's an old adage: 'Once a Marine, always a Marine.' I think I raised the bar on that one."
Crawford's wife, Karen, and his two sons will be next to him this morning at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, which is the unit Crawford assisted overseas. The military wanted to recognize him for working as an embedded law enforcement professional with the Marines of Regimental Combat Team-2 in Helmand and Nimroz Provinces in Afghanistan.
"The medal symbolizes the extraordinary fidelity and essential service of the Department's civilian workforce who are an integral part of the Department of Defense and who contribute to the preservation of national security," a Department of Defense statement read.
A life of service
As a 22-year-old, Crawford led a company of men in jungle combat in Vietnam. He spent three years with the Marines, including a tour fighting in Vietnam, where he led a company of 200 men and won the Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.
Crawford said he received the awards after suffering a minor gunshot wound in a firefight.
Afterward, the Villanova University graduate went into a Drug Enforcement Administration career as an agent on the streets of New York. It was the beginning of a 25-year career that had him wrestling with the Cali Cartel and making groundbreaking drug busts.
Crawford served as Fort Myers DEA chief from 1992-97. His office seized 34,000 pounds of marijuana, 5,000 pounds of cocaine, nearly $15 million in cash and assets and made about 775 arrests during his five years.
His case against Paradise Club owner Jaime Carillo, one of the most publicized drug cases in Fort Myers history, ended with a cocaine trafficking conviction and, in 1997, he landed the all-time largest seizure of cocaine — 2,400 pounds — in Southwest Florida.
Out of retirement
After retiring as the Fort Myers anti-drug boss in 1997, Crawford thought he would enjoy retirement. It didn't happen. Citing his notable drug busts and investigative skills, the Department of Defense asked Crawford to join a new program started by the government to help Marines in combat.
"The insurgent groups who were responsible for these roadside bombs were working more like criminal organizations than traditional state armies," Crawford said.
Crawford said the experience of assisting the military during his twilight years stands out more than receiving any medals.
"It's all about the experience," he said. "How many people at this point in their lives have an opportunity to do something like this that has an impact?"
BORN: Long Island, N.Y.
EDUCATION: Business administration degree from Villanova University; military: tour in Vietnam with U.S. Marine Corps; professional: 25 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York, Tampa and Fort Myers
MEDALS: 1970 Purple Heart, 2014 Medal for the Defense of Freedom award