Contracting officer invaluable on deployments

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
Master Sgt. Donald Crawford traded his camouflage uniform for a crisp business suit and tie to tackle his duties as a contracting warrior during a recent six-month deployment to Southwest Asia.

In today's Air Force, contracting officials are more than paper-pushers -- they're in an undermanned career field with frequent deployments, traveling "outside the wire" with armed guards and building partnerships with foreign nationals.

"One of the only reasons we have enlisted members in this career field is to deploy," said Crawford, who came to Keesler just over a year ago as superintendent of the 81st Contracting Squadron. "We have a valuable commodity here -- contingency contracting officers -- that the other services can't provide. The Army is huge, but we're still providing 70 percent of the CCOs in theater. At the assignment I just left, 80 percent of the force was Army, but 100 percent of the contingency contracting force was Air Force."

Crawford joined the Air Force in 1993. He crosstrained from the supply career field 12 years ago.

For this deployment, Crawford was based with a special operations unit in Qatar and forward deployed to multiple locations where he was safer not wearing a uniform. Since 1996, he's served in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jeddah, Iraq and Afghanistan, too.

"This deployment was really amazing and allowed me to visit countries that as an American I never dreamed of seeing," he said.

There are several reasons why contracting is a "stressed" career field that offers significant reenlistment bonuses. There's a six-month dwell time, meaning members can expect to be deployed again after six months back at home. Also, contracting professionals can command much larger salaries outside the military, so many leave long before retirement.

"The Air Force has invested a lot of money in this career field, and we're trying to train a lot of people," Crawford said. "Our schoolhouse has tripled at Lackland (Air Force Base, Texas), but that pool wouldn't mature fast enough, so the E-6s and E-7s are still stressed. The big reenlistment bonuses are a way to 'incentivize' these experienced people to stay in."

He's quick to correct the impression that contracting officers are nothing more than "desk jockeys" and believes they're judged more harshly than other career fields because they're dealing with taxpayer money.

"Here's the thing -- I'm not the expert on any of these projects," he pointed out. "However, I'm responsible for buying these projects and products, so I have to get out there to see what I'm buying and learn about it. If a contracting officer just sits behind a desk, there's no way to be successful at the job. What makes us successful is not necessarily how great we are, but the strength of the relationships that we build with our customers."

Now that he's back at Keesler, his deployment experiences and insights are helping his squadron learn and appreciate the critical impacts of contracting support, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Wright, 81st CONS commander.

"On the strategic level, he bolstered public support for coalition efforts from Tajikistan by authoring a countrywide deworming contract," the colonel said. "On the operational level, Sergeant Crawford helped plan two major coalition exercises across 22 countries. Finally, he enabled a rapid tactical execution capability for special operations commandos. His incredible experiences will enrich our future deploying CCOs."

Crawford said the $700,000 Tajikistan deworming contract, a U.S. State Department initiative, provided vaccinations for more than 7 million people. More than half of the country's school-aged children are infected with pinworms, roundworms and tapeworms and about 10,000 of them die each year.

"I worked with the equivalent of their country's surgeon general," Crawford said. "Remember, this is a former Russian country - for me to be sitting there, still seeing the Soviet Union signs on the wall, was surreal for me.

"This project is a huge win -- they not only see us as visitors at this point, but as an asset," he continued. "You can see the effect we're having on the war on terror by winning the hearts and minds of the people. This area is a major drug route on the Afghan border -- these people are more likely to help us now when we need it."

One of the challenges for Crawford during his most recent deployment was the joint mission in a secure compound. Sometimes conflicts occurred when different cultures clashed.

"My particular unit was a special operations unit and it was our duty to support it," he explained. "The Air Force does things a certain way, Army does things a different way, Navy and Marines, too. We even had Coast Guard forces. When cultures mix, sometimes there's conflict. In the Air Force, we're bred to ask "Why?" and that's not necessarily the same in the other services. It was challenging to understand the things the other services bring to the fight and to have them appreciate what we do."

One of his proudest accomplishments was unifying a contracting team that was struggling with hard feel-ings from previous rotations.

"I had a great lieutenant, an academy grad, and I was proud of how I helped that junior officer grow," Crawford said. "He helped me, too -- he was so young and I tend to be set in my ways and he helped me think outside the box. It was a huge undertaking, but by the time I left, we were able to change the environment there together."

Being separated from a family is one of the toughest things about being deployed, and Crawford said this was one of the harder times for his wife and three children, especially his 11-year-old son. He returned home Dec. 17 in time to enjoy Christmas with his family.

"My wife, Katrice, did a stand-up job," he said. "Many relationships fail based on frequent deployments, but we have a strong support system. Some wonderful people were there for us. Colonel Wright invested time with my family and did things for my kids like he does for his own children. That speaks to the magnitude of his character.

"But I'm super happy to be home, and there's nothing like coming back to work with a great team," he said. "Now I have an opportunity to train other CCOs on what I saw in the field. I'm passionate about this. I want my folks to be the best when they deploy."

Crawford describes himself as a "Type-A control freak personality," but his commander portrays him as a "people-first kind of person."

"Even while deployed, he put people back home at Keesler ahead of his own personal needs," Wright said. "He'd work a 14- or 15-hour day, yet stay connected with our squadron in a variety of ways such as mentoring Airmen, reviewing award nominations and providing a sounding board."

"The Air Force has invested a lot of money in me and I'm trying to give them their money's worth," Crawford said.