Thursday, September 04, 2008

Guardsman Wraps Up Four Decades Of Service

A tour in Vietnam, flood duty in 1993 and 2001, a tour in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, and flood duty in 2008. That is only part of the highlight reel for a 58-year-old Oquawka, Ill., man who is about to hang up his combat boots after a military career that has spanned nearly 40 years. Army Staff Sgt. Norris Crooks of Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery, based here, has mixed feelings as he prepares to retire from the Illinois Army National Guard. “It’s been really good, and I have no regrets,” Crooks said. “I enjoy what we do, and we have really good people. I am definitely going to miss all of the guys.” Crooks enlisted in the Army in 1970. He was deployed to Vietnam for 14 months, and when he returned, he got out of the military. But, he said, he missed the military lifestyle and camaraderie, and he decided to enlist in the Illinois Army National Guard in 1986. He became part of the Galesburg-based National Guard company, where he has spent the remainder of his military career. The long-time soldier is married, with four children ranging in age from 17 to 29. He has worked at Gates Rubber in Galesburg for 18 years. Cheryl Crooks married Norris in 1986, so the military has been a major part of their lives together. “It’s had a huge impact on our lives,” she said. “Honestly, it’s changed me and made me grow up.” Cheryl Crooks said the time her husband was deployed to Iraq was one of the hardest times of her life. “I still get emotional thinking about it,” she said. “It was awful. We were lost without him. I still remember sitting by the phone with our kids, waiting for him to call.”
Army Staff Sgt. Norris Crooks prepares to fire a final ceremonial howitzer round while Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery, performs annual training at Fort McCoy, Wis.
Cheryl said she was never a strong person, but being a military spouse taught her to be. She said she is very proud of what her husband has accomplished throughout his career, and that she sees him as her hero. Norris said his career in the Illinois National Guard has given him memorable experiences. He was mobilized for flood relief efforts in 1993, 2001 and 2008. He deployed to Iraq in 2005. And last year, Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery, trained in England for two weeks, working with British soldiers. During training this summer at Fort McCoy, Wis., Crooks fired a ceremonial final round from a howitzer artillery cannon. Crooks had fired about 500 rounds during his career, but this time was different. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is my last time I was going to fire,’” Crooks said. “It was a great feeling. Crooks officially retires from the Illinois Army National Guard on Jan. 19. The unit will recognize him with an official going-away ceremony in December. Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Newton, readiness noncommissioned officer with the Galesburg-based National Guard unit, has known Crooks most of his life, because they grew up a few blocks apart in Oquawka. Newton said Crooks is the epitome of an Illinois National Guard soldier. “He is the best kind of soldier -- reliable, motivated and always mission-focused,” Newton said. With the experience Crooks brings to the unit, Newton said, many soldiers look up to him for advice and guidance. In a diverse military career that has spanned 38 years, Crooks has seen a lot of change in the military. He is asked many times what differences he sees from the Vietnam War to the war in Iraq. He said his answer is usually the same. “In Vietnam, you knew who the enemy was. In Iraq, you don’t,” Crooks said. “It’s two totally different worlds, and it’s hard to compare.”

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