This is the second of a two-part series on local veteran Hal Crites.
Thanksgiving 1971. Capt. Harold F. Crites has a lot for which to be thankful.
His name will not be inscribed on the massive black expanse of granite on the Mall in Washington, D.C. that will be dedicated as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 11 years — November 13, 1982 — after he returned to the United States.
Hal checks in at Ft. Lee, Virginia to take the Officer Advanced Course, but he has time before classes begin.
The Army has a job for him while he is waiting for the course to start. Capt. Crites is put in charge of staffing the first Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program for returning veterans.
The Army has become painfully aware of the fragility of the human spirit. They have come to the realization that the young men and women they send into battle are not machines that can be turned on and off.
Sleeping with a loaded weapon by your side or under your pillow, as Hal Crites had done for most the years he was in Vietnam — then 24 hours later you are in your own bed, in your own or Mom and Dad’s home.
For many returning service men and women, the drugs that got them through the atrocities and horrors of war have become a habit — they are dependent on them and need help. This would be new territory for the Army.
Some, like Hal Crites, keep the hurtful memories to themselves for years and become emotional when they share the stories. To this day, has trouble talking about what happened to the young Vietnamese boy that would run out to meet his plane when he returned from a mission and hand him a warm Pepsi.
During those times the Vietnamese boys would use hand grenades to fish. Throw the grenade in the Mekong, wait for it to explode, dive in and gather up the fish. Hal, with a warm Pepsi, was watching the boy fishing the time the boy dove in the water before the grenade exploded.
Emotions on hold
But Crites is on another kind of mission, and he must put his own emotions on hold for now.
He is charged with staffing a program that has not been tried before by the Army. He has no established criteria to draw from, yet he’s going to do it.
He brings social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and support staff on board and the six-week program begins. The success rate is lower than hoped for, just 3-5%, but this is the beginning of what will mature into an integral part of most Veterans Administration Medical Centers.
Alcohol and drug abuse aren’t the only unwanted baggage these soldiers are bringing home. Hal Crites is not the same person that got on that plane at Ft. Dix, New Jersey in November 1970, says his wife.
Hal Crites got married while he was in college. His wife traveled with him to Germany, Georgia and Alabama, and they had three children, Melanie Christine, Tina Marie and Harold Robert.
However, “We never adjusted well after that,” he said. Their marriage ended in 1973.
In 1977, he married the former Nancy A. Small. Nancy is the mother of two, Steven and Katherine.
After three years, nine months and 22 days, Hal Crites was released from active duty. He returned to Clinton County and put his Bachelor of Science Degree in Agriculture Economics to work.
He went back to farming, but this time on a larger scale. With the help of family and hired help on occasion, he put in 1,500 acres of cash crop, eight acres of vegetables, 22 acres of sweet corn, and he operated his 10,000 square-foot greenhouse. All of this was in addition to his 50 beef cattle and 100 sows.
It was a lot of work, but it was the kind of life that was fulfilling gratifying to him.
In 1993 Crites had to make another life-changing decisions. His wife, Nancy, was having some medical issues and Hal needed a job with health insurance. The largest employer in Clinton County at the time was Airborne Express (ABX), so that’s where he went.
Hired on as a supervisor until ABX could fill a critical position, management looked more closely at his background. They had not noticed previously that Mr. Crites was also known as Colonel Harold F. Crites, U.S. Army. At this time Hal had accumulated more than 20 years of service in the Army, Army Reserves and Army National Guard.
The new Logistical Manager, Crites was responsible for the clients who were the largest volume shippers and/or had the most time-sensitive shipments — a position that was right in his wheelhouse.
Farm help was hard to find and there are only so many hours in a day. He sold the farming operation and threw himself into his work at ABX for 18 years, until they ceased operations in Wilmington.
Age 64 and unemployed would cause anxiety and/or depression in many men, but Hal Crites had faced challenges bigger than this. Besides, he had a support group that was reminiscent of his time in Vietnam, because he had maintained contact with several of the men he had served with all those years ago.
When you are a small group that eats, sleeps, drinks and fights a common enemy together, an almost unbreakable bond develops.
Other than the “Chain of Command” and mutual respect, the Company was not segregated by rank — Enlisted, Warrant Officer, and Line Officer were “joined at the hip” — one mission, one team.
Hal can tell you about his former Crew Chief, who currently lives near North Pole, Alaska and his three planes that he uses to take people to the most remote areas or the Warrant Officer who stayed in the Army for 20 years flying helicopters and then after retiring, flew civilian medivac helicopters.
One of the more remarkable friendships that continues today is based on a selfless act — most would call heroic — performed for three strangers from another country during the war.
When Captain Crites heard there were three men, one of whom was wounded, stranded in an area where the terrain made a helicopter retrieval at night impossible, Hal asked not who, but where?
He flew to their location, landed on a narrow dirt road, loaded two of the men, including the wounded man, and in his made-for-two (including the pilot) plane, returned to Chi Lang.
When the two men were out of the plane Hal turned the aircraft around flew back for the remaining New Zealander and returned him to his team before once again putting the wounded soldier back in his plane and flying him to a field hospital.
Crites, as usual, gives credit for the success this rescue, to others, saying: “Landing my Bird Dog safely in the dark would have been almost impossible had it not been for my Crew Chief, who parked at the end of the runway with the Jeep’s headlights on.”
For his actions, Captain Harold F. Crites was made an Honorary Member of the New Zealand Mess and is in regular contact with one of the New Zealand team.
Tradition of service
Hal’s military service is not unique to the Crites family. His father served during WWII; his uncle retired as a Command Sergeant Major, USMC; his youngest brother is a retired Colonel, Air National Guard; the middle brother was in the Army, got out, missed military service, so he joined the Coast Guard — and lost his life in helicopter crash.
He also has a grandson serving in the Air Force.
Whenever Mr. Crites talks about his family’s service, you can see the pride wash across his face. However, if you really want to see Hal Crites smile and swell up with unapologetic pride, ask him about his children/stepchildren and grandchildren.
Hal had three children by his first marriage. Tragically, his oldest daughter, Melanie Christine, was taken from the family in a motorcycle accident seven years ago, leaving her husband, a son and a daughter behind. Daughter Tina Marie has two sons and two daughters, and stepson Steven has a son and stepdaughter Katherine has two sons.
When asked to sum up his life, Hal will smile broadly and tell you: “I’ve been blessed, truly blessed. I haven’t missed many of the gold rings that came my way.”
After a short pause, he continues: “I have a wonderful family, a houseboat and jet ski on Lake Norris, Tennessee.
“What more could a man want? I’m living the dream.”
The writer, Paul Butler, is a Wilmington resident, U.S. Navy veteran, and a Class of 2020 inductee of the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame.
In September 2020, Clinton County recognized Paul for his “dedication and commitment in military service as well as his exceptional post military advocacy and volunteerism for the veteran community.” A 2020 News Journal article called him “the voice and the fountain pen for Clinton County veterans organizations and related projects.”