More than a half century ago, a young Navy ensign and Stanford University graduate raised his right hand, listened to the words to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, and said “I do.”
Robert “Bob” Crowell, who died one week ago, never stopped helping his constituents. The Carson City mayor retired from the Navy as a captain after 23 years of service including a tour aboard a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam; he led a distinguished law career; and he worked tirelessly for his fellow veterans either out front or behind the scenes.
Those who worked closely with the three-term mayor also called him an ambassador for Carson City and the state of Nevada. When a problem needed prodding before a committee, he was steadfast. When the community or military needed support, the 74-year-old Crowell provided a strong shoulder to lean on.
TRAGEDIES BEYOND TEARS
Crowell’s death coincidentally occurred during a week most area residents remember with reverence. Nine years ago, a gunman killed four patrons including three Nevada Army National Guard soldiers at the IHOP Restaurant, and 19 years ago, hijackers commandeered four passenger jets and crashed two into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. Another nosedived into a western Pennsylvania field.
Retired Brig. Gen. William Burks became Nevada’s adjutant general in 2009, but on Sept, 6, 2011, Burks and Crowell worked for hours together to soothe both the National Guard and local communities after the senseless shooting.
“That was the first time I really got to know him,” Burks said. “It was fairly early in my term. What a prince of a man. He was one of those guys who said whatever you need, give me a call. He was very supportive of the military.”
The incident impacted numerous families and no tears could wash away the heart-throbbing pain of that Tuesday morning, yet Burks said the mayor showed strength as a leader to guide Carson City through tragedy.
“He was just phenomenal after that,” Burks said.
That strength of optimism also shined at the city’s annual 9/11 remembrance at Mills Park with Crowell telling others never to forget the patriots who died on Sept. 11 and to remain vigilant in an evil world.
During his tenure as adjutant general, Burks said they attended similar functions such as the 100th anniversary of the launching of the battleship USS Nevada or a veterans’ legislative day on the Capitol grounds. On many occasions, Burks said Crowell wore his crisp, white Navy uniform to show both his pride in serving and supporting veterans and the military whether it was a groundbreaking for a new building, attending a Memorial Day ceremony at the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Fernley or participating in a parade.
“He was an ambassador for not only Carson City but also for Nevada,” Burks said.
A VETERAN’S ADVOCATE
Katherine “Kat” Miller relied on Crowell’s knowledge and experience when she became director of the Nevada Department of Veteran Services. She said Crowell took the time to inform her about Nevada veterans and the issues affecting the military community. According to Miller, Crowell formed one of the first community veteran coalitions in the state which also supported Minden and Gardnerville.
“I was lucky on a personal note to have a leader like that to turn to,” she said, adding he was a person who would roll up sleeves and ask “What can we do?”
Miller said Crowell possessed the connections to make others aware of needs such as housing, medical care or behavioral health. People didn’t see Crowell working behind the scenes, Miller said.
“He made suicide prevention an open, out-front conversation,” she said.
At the Nevada Rural Counties Retired and Senior Volunteers Program in January 2018, Crowell and other speakers discussed veteran suicides at the “Reaching for Zero: A veteran appreciation and veteran lunch,” and how the number of suicides is still too high. Speakers discussed the programs and training that are continually being implemented to assist residents and medical health professionals with suicide awareness prevention.
Crowell and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, both Navy veterans, said the state continues to add programs to help all veterans. Upon hearing of Crowell’s death, Laxalt said he always enjoyed working with the mayor on different issues.
“Nevada and Carson City are forever better because of his contributions,” he said. “He was a fellow Navy veteran, a gentleman and true public servant who tried to be above the political fray.”
Miller said Crowell involved Carson City in the Mayor’s Challenge, which, according to the NDVS is for communities to “eliminate suicide by using a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention.” Cities develop their own strategic action plans to combat suicides, but Miller said Carson City had a plan and proceeded like a well-oiled machine.
When the Legislature convened during the odd years, Miller said Crowell supported the United Veterans Legislative Council and the causes they presented before lawmakers.
Glenna Smith, now a public affairs officer with the VA Sierra Nevada Health Care System, first worked with Crowell when she handled veterans’ concerns for Sen. Dean Heller. She first became acquainted with Crowell at Navy League meetings, and had considered Crowell a good source for information.
“I’d have various veterans’ cases of concern, and I would need his help,” she said, citing the need to help a Vietnam veteran who was on the verge of dementia. “He had the ability to call people to get to the crux … how can we help?”
Congressman Mark Amodei and Crowell belonged to the same law firm until Amodei became president of the Nevada Mining Association in 2007. After Amodei was first elected as congressman in 2011, he worked with Crowell on military issues with the Veterans Affairs Reno Office (VARO).
“Bob was full of grace with how he handled military issues,” Amodei said, citing the mayor’s ability to be a problem solver. “I see those guys who are strong mayors on both sides of the aisle. They are laser focused.”
SERVICE TO COMMUNITY
As a veteran, Crowell belonged to the Vietnam Veterans Association 388 and the Carson City Council of the United States Navy League, and he made an impact with each one. For several years, Crowell delivered the keynote remarks to commemorate Veterans Remembrance Day at the end of every March and assisted with projects promoting the Vietnam veterans.
“He was very pro VVA,” said Tom Spencer, president of the Vietnam vets’ organization.
The Moving Wall is a scaled replica of the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, D.C. and came to Carson City in 2012 and Minden in 2018. Crowell addressed the Minden audience.
The Take Me Home Huey project came to the Carson City Community Center almost three years ago. The Light Horse Legacy with its traveling Huey helicopter, a colorful ambassador from the Vietnam War, focuses on veterans who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other afflictions and are looking for a way to reach out for information or help.
Crowell said Huey 174, the helicopter on display for the project, reminds many veterans the war didn’t end when “the guns went silent.” PTSD, he affirmed, manifests itself in a way that’s not good and leads to many veterans committing suicide.
J.R. Stafford, president of VVA Chapter 989 in Reno, said Crowell was among four mayors who read the names of Nevadans killed in the war at a Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance Event and All Veterans Luncheon in 2019. Stafford considered the reading of names a solemn part of the event.
Clarence Bud” Southard said Crowell was the original president of the Carson City Navy League in 1984. During his time with the Navy League, Southard said Crowell became involved with the scholarship program and recognition of sailors at NAS Fallon. Scholarships were named after contributors to the program such as the late retired Capt. Ray Alcorn, who was commanding officer of NAS Fallon in the late 1980s and moved to Carson City after his retirement.
Southard, Crowell and his wife Susan, the sponsor of the ship, and Amodei attended the christening of the USNS Carson City, an expeditionary fast transport, at the Mobile, Ala., shipyard on Jan. 16, 2016. Crowell noted a predecessor, the USS Carson City, a Tacoma class frigate, was awarded two battle stars during World War II.
Susan Crowell delivered the christening remarks and said Carson City lives up to its motto of “Proud of its past, confident of its future.” Bob Crowell swelled with pride during and after the building of the ship.
“He spent a lot of time going back and forth (to Mobile),” Southard said. “He had a big hand in the christening of the ship.”
Amodei said he was impressed with the ceremony and the continuance of history associated with the christening.
“I was proud to represent my home town at the christening of a U.S. Navy ship,” Amodei said.
During a community service for Crowell on Sept. 12, Southard conducted the Navy’s Two-Bell ceremony to honor a departed shipmate.
Retired Navy Capt. Brad Goetch commanded NAS Fallon from 2001-2004 before becoming Churchill County manager. He said Crowell followed Navy issues and at least two to three times a year, the Carson City mayor addressed the air station’s Navy League chapter. As county manager, their paths crossed often, and both community leaders discussed water issues, growth of their respective areas and economic development.
Goetch said Crowell attended Navy League events at the Frey Ranch and sometimes, a monthly dinner.
“He would be involved with presenting awards to sailors," Goetch recounted. “He supported the Navy and NAS Fallon.”
PROUD VIETNAM VET
Retired Navy Capt. Michael Lilly, who lives in Kula, Hawaii, and Crowell were both lieutenants (junior grade) aboard the destroyer USS Waddell off the coast of Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. The Waddell supported both American and South Vietnamese troops with gunfire support and conducted offensive operations against the Viet Cong
Lilly remembers distinctly recalls his time with Crowell aboard the ship.
“Many times we came to the aid of Marines or army troops encamped on hills surrounded by VC and on the verge of being wiped out,” Lilly noted. “I recall vividly a Marine detachment spotting our 5-inch 54 rounds right around the hill only yards away from the Marines and saving them from annihilation. I could hear the whoops and cheers over the radio.
On another occasion, he said Crowell loosened off four rounds at the request of a helicopter. Lilly said the helicopter’s pilot reported the chopper was hit and going down.
“Bob, with visions of his Navy career sinking, called our commanding officer to inform him that he might have shot down an American helicopter,” Lilly said. “Fortunately, it turned out to have been enemy fire and not our rounds. When I reminded Bob of that story in 2016, he wrote back, ‘Boy do I remember that day!’”
Everyone who met or knew of Crowell soon realized his passion in supporting Vietnam War veterans.
“He’s the last of the old school statesman,” said Jon Yuspa, director and founder of Honor Flight Nevada.
Yuspa said the mayor was involved in myriad activities ranging from the dedication of the Gold Star Families Memorial in Sparks to supporting veteran causes. He said Crowell and his law firm were passionate about Honor Flight. Yuspa, who referred to Crowell as a mentor, said his law firm presented a check to the Vietnam project, which raised funds to take Vietnam War veterans to Washington, D.C. for several days to visit the nation's war memorials and Arlington National Cemetery.
In June 2015, the inaugural flight with mostly Vietnam vets buckled themselves for the trip flight from Reno to the nation’s capital.
“He was coming as a vet but also coming as a mayor,” Yuspa said, adding Crowell was an advocate for the military.
When the veterans visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall, Yuspa said one of Crowell’s sons who was working in Washington, D.C., showed up to see his father. The overall experience at the wall for Vietnam veterans and their guardians on the trip became very emotional, Yuspa said; yet, in true Bob Crowell fashion, he said it was an honor and privilege to be at the wall and noted more than 58,000 names on it. Of the vets who served in Vietnam, Crowell said two-thirds are no longer with us. With the other vets standing in a half circle, he created his words to make an memorable impact with his fellow comrades who served 8,500 miles away from the West Coast but came home to either no homecoming or a hostile reception.
“When a young child comes up today and brings you a letter that says ‘thank you for your service,’ it makes you want to cry — it makes you want to cry. It makes you want to cry because we didn’t get that,” said Crowell, his eyes welling with tears.
“I think our job — if I can be so bold to say — I think our job as vets as we get older as Vietnam veterans — is to keep that torch burning to make sure it never happens to another generation of folks … who are sent in harm’s way that we never ever have them come back home to an ungrateful nation. We need to pass that torch on.”
For Capt. Robert Crowell, U.S. Navy, those who know him say his torch will continue to burn for both his fellow comrades who fought in Vietnam and for future generations of men and women who raised their right hand to take the oath to defend and serve their country.