Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bakersfield to Bahrain: Unusual 'mission' for San Diego-based squadron VR-57


Just hours after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in January, Bill Crump and his San Diego-based fleet logistics support squadron were in the air, flying non-stop airlifts of lifesaving supplies and personnel into the region.

It wasn’t the first international emergency Crump, the squadron’s commanding officer, has responded to. But it dramatically demonstrated the readiness and capabilities of his Navy reserve squadron, which has repeatedly won military commendations.

Crump, 44, who grew up in Cleveland, Tenn., said he was “extremely proud of the men and women of VR-57, who stepped up at a moment’s notice to make [the Haiti] mission happen.”

The long list of humanitarian missions the squadron has flown also includes airlifting New Orleans refugees from the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and hauling rescue supplies and crews to the stricken Gulf Coast in its C-40A, which is a variation of a Boeing 737 that can be quickly reconfigured to carry cargo, passengers, or both.

While Crump describes his squadron’s primary mission as “bringing the fighter to the fight,” the crews’ readiness, the long-range reach of its aircraft and the unit’s flexibility provide frequent and unique challenges.

“You call, we’ll be there,” Crump recently told a reporter.

“There” may be airlifting warriors and weapons to hot spots in the Middle East, or “there” may be delivering the Harlem Globetrotters to a show on a military base. Legislators, diplomats and foreign officers have sat in the jump seat behind Crump in the cockpit as he has flown around the world.

But as he prepares to hand over command of VR-57 next month, Crump said one of his most unusual and gratifying missions was airlifting 15,000 pounds of fresh steak and the 58 volunteer cooks, mostly from the Bakersfield,Calif., to barbecues for troops in the Middle East on July 4.

The loosely-knit group that calls itself the “Cooks from the Valley” was airlifted with top-of-the-line Harris Ranch steaks to Bahrain, where teams of “cooks” were dispatched to four locations -- the Naval Support Activity (Bahrain), Shaikh Isa Air Base ( Bahrain), aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau in the Persian Gulf and Camp Lemonier, a remote base in Djibouti, Africa, where troops stand watch over Somali pirates.

In temperatures pushed beyond the recorded 120 degrees by the humidity and heat from barbecue grills, the valley cooks served up a dinner that included a 12-ounce gourmet steak and all the traditional July 4 side dishes to homesick sailors, soldiers and marines. Volunteers paid for the steaks and their expenses out of their own pockets.

The idea behind the barbecues began two decades ago. Bakersfield attorney Tom Anton began boxing up prime grade steaks, hauling them to ships and barbecuing them for sailors as expressions of his appreciation for the military.

But after the terrorists’ attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Anton’s barbecues grew into “Cooks from the Valley,” who travel like an invading army, barbecuing steaks by the thousands to weary troops, some deployed to the most dangerous and isolated regions of the world.

“We buy the steak, cook them and clean up,” explained Anton. “Anyone can give money. This is something we can do for the military that is allowing us to live today like it was Sept. 10, 2001. They are keeping us safe.”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the valley cooks have barbecued more than 130,000 steaks for troops in military hospitals and on bases in combat areas, as well as stateside. On Christmas Day 2007, four cooks, including Anton, traveled to a medical outpost in Iraq to barbecue steaks.

“The need continues,” said Anton. “We are asking enormous sacrifices from these kids. We are creating ‘old young people.’ We have exposed these kids to things no one has seen, as these wars have dragged on and the U.S. has become the 911 responder for the world.”

Lt. Kendra Kaufman, a VR-57 pilot who flew legs of the valley cooks’ airlift, called the mission unique because of the “diplomatic and logistics requirements of bringing civilians into multiple combat zones, as well as the challenge of transporting perishable cargo” into an area in which the temperatures are well above 100 degrees.

Crump said he was honored to participate in the mission because he was “inspired by these ‘patriots’ not only giving of their time and money, but more importantly their genuine sincerity and appreciation of our forward deployed troops.”

The son of Olivia Crump of Cleveland and William Crump Jr. of Huntsville, Ala., the squadron’s commander is a graduate of Cleveland High School and Auburn University. He has been in the Navy for 22 years.

After several years of active duty, Crump transitioned to “reserve” status and began flying as a commercial airline pilot. He became a full-time reserve last year to serve as VR-57’s commanding officer.

Crump will remain in the reserves and resume flying for United Airlines after next month’s change of command. He and his wife, Carol, live in San Diego.

Dianne Hardisty is a freelance writer in Bakersfield, Calif. She and her husband, John Hardisty, traveled with the Cooks from the Valley to Bahrain for the July 4 barbecues. She wrote this story for The Cleveland Daily Banner in Cleveland, Tenn., the home town of the squadron's commanding officer, Bill Crump.

Captions: Top -- Cmdr. Bill Crump (left) and Lt. Kendra Kaufman are shown in the cockpit of their C-40A flying back to the U.S. from Bahrain. Center -- Cooks from the Valley, including Richard Wilson (center) barbecue steaks for the troops in Bahrain on July 4. Bottom -- Cmdr. Crump supervises the unloading of 15,000 pounds of steaks from his squadron's cargo plane in Bahrain.

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