BIRMINGHAM, Ala. --
The Air Force values its airmen’s service to others. So much so, that a medal was created to recognize those that choose to volunteer their time in service to the civilian community. Most consider volunteering at a soup kitchen or spending days on Habitat for Humanity work sites. However, one member of the 117th Intelligence Squadron went above and beyond to demonstrate how a veteran member of the National Guard can make a big difference to those in great need, even at a substantial personal cost and while no one was watching, with no expectation of personal recognition.
Master Sgt. Michael Todd Crook is a Geospatial Analyst on drill status and a temporary technician with the 117th Intelligence Squadron. His service spans over twenty years between his beginning in the U.S. Marine Corps and then continuing on in the Air National Guard for the last fifteen years. During that time he has been deployed all over the world in support of the military operations but for ten days this past February he traveled with a volunteer medical group led by Dr. Michael Callahan of the UAB Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital to Nicaragua. As military members we’ve all had a deployment or mission that affected us more deeply than others, this one was his.
Nicaragua is a small communist country that lies in Central America. Its scenery is incredible and its weather is almost always sunny and warm due to its location near the equator. However, this combination is also a curse for the very poor of the nation. Extended exposure to very strong equatorial sunlight can damage eyes and cause cataracts, a very treatable condition. Unfortunately, in Nicaragua healthcare is sparse and unattainable for many. The medical team, led by Dr. Callahan, has been traveling for the past sixteen years to treat hundreds of people, both young and old, with a variety of ocular ailments. The patients walk for hours to the “Alabama Clinic” run by Dr. Rudy Vargas after being notified by a loud speaker on a car or by word of mouth of the arrival of the American team.
“An old man in his eighties traveled for hours by canoe from a remote island and then walked for hours to receive care and he wasn’t an isolated case,” stated Cindy Ratliff, Dr. Callahan’s office manager.
Parent’s brought children with a variety of eye disorders including amblyopia, or “Lazy Eye” to the team and without hesitation, handed them to the strangers in hopes that they could help their little ones. Very common procedures by first world standards were completely unattainable for them.
Mrs. Ratliff stated that Crook gained the nickname “Hacksaw” from the doctors in the group. One reason he earned his call sign was due to the fact that the equipment the surgical team was forced to use was very old and dilapidated but Crook managed to cobble together whatever the doctors asked for from scrap that he found around the hospital. When asked by Dr. Callahan for a six foot board with a restraint for performing eye surgery on a toddler, he returned fifteen minutes later with a functional papoose board made from a menagerie of boards and different sized screws, much to the doctor’s surprise. The other reason was due to his strong personality. As many of his co-workers at the Intelligence Squadron can tell you, Crook has his opinions and isn’t afraid to let you know what they are when it comes to getting a mission completed. One of the patients at the hospital received surgery that required a follow-up visit the next day. When Crook found the young lady laying on a bench outside of the hospital, post operation, he asked why she was there. He learned that she was not from the area and had nowhere to go so she was going to sleep on the bench until the next morning. Crook inquired with hospital staff why she wasn’t being admitted overnight. He was told that it wasn’t their problem, he disagreed. He explained, through an interpreter, to the president of the hospital that they must admit the patient or he would bring her in and stand guard over her all night until the doctors returned. The hospital saw that he was quite serious and eventually admitted her.
I heard quite a few stories from Mrs. Ratliff about what went on during the hectic ten days that Crook ran the comings and goings of operations at the hospital from carrying babies to holding IV bags because the pole broke. All of them were incredible but the most incredible was how she said it impacted him and I can attest to that. Crook is a changed individual. He has been humbled while representing us as an American in a foreign land and as a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Air National Guard.