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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fort Lewis Commander Retiring

The AP

FORT LEWIS - During 33 years in the Army, George Crocker saw the lows of both combat and a divided military, but says he's glad he stuck with it.

Lt. Gen. Crocker is retiring this month as commander of Fort Lewis. But he says there were times when he wondered why he should stay in the Army.

"The barracks were burned. The headquarters was set on fire," Crocker recalled of his duty in Germany in the early 1970s. "An armored battalion commander was shot by one of his own troops. Our headquarters company first sergeant - the druggies kicked in the door of his room, stabbed him."

But he stayed.

"One of my bosses told me, `Don't be disheartened if the Army has a bottoming out after Vietnam,' " Crocker said. "He told me, `We're going to have a low time, but stick with it. The Army's a great institution; it'll rise again.' "

Crocker, 56, a native of Russellville, Ark., entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1962.

His roommate, Art Mosley, says he was "not real handy with the books, but he was pretty bright. "Everybody knew he was going to be a good soldier. He was a natural leader and had the respect of his classmates."

And Crocker excelled at military training.

He volunteered to go to Vietnam, arriving in January 1967. Combat duty during two tours there earned him a Bronze Star and Silver Star, and his exploits were included in a book about the West Point class of 1966, "The Long Gray Line."

Crocker shrugs it off.

"People get awards because they get put in situations they would never, ever want to be in," he said. "And you're there and you have no choice. And you just do what you have to do."

His Vietnam experiences also caused some disillusionment, as he saw the Army "withdrawing and falling apart at the same time," Crocker said. "So was America."

There was further disillusionment in Germany.

"Germany was eaten up with drugs and race problems, race riots," he said.

But Crocker stuck with it and rose quickly in the ranks.

He commanded the 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, during the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and helped plan the invasion of Panama in 1989.

In 1996, he was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of Fort Lewis.

After three decades, Crocker is concerned about soldiers' diminished quality of life and the possible erosion of combat skills.

"The fundamental role of the Army is still to fight and win the nation's wars," he said. But, he added, "if the American people want us to go and do peace operations, then we ought to be able to do that."

After he retires, Crocker and his wife, Vonda, plan to return to Arkansas. He has no immediate plans for a second career, but isn't looking back.

"The only legacy you leave in the short term is trained units, and in the long term it's leaders, people that you develop," he said. "They won't even remember your name. But maybe in some situation down the road, the leader will remember something that you trained them on."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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