A number of metro-east fire stations have been raising funds this summer to give a wounded veteran a customized vehicle that he can operate despite having both of his legs amputated as a result of injuries suffered in Iraq eight years ago.
“It’s a big help in a lot of ways,” said Sgt. Cameron Crouch, 28, from the Champaign area.
He picked out a black Ford F-150 that the firefighters will purchase and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will retrofit with hand controls and a crane mounted in the bed of the truck to help Cameron move his wheelchair out of the bed when he needs it and into the bed when he’s ready to hit the road.
With his current vehicle, an SUV, Cameron said he’s been able to get the wheelchair in and out himself, but it’s a strenuous task that has on occasion caused him to fall.
“I have to balance on one prosthetic leg and a crutch and hold myself up with one arm and just throw it in and crutch up to the front of the vehicle and put the crutches in the passenger seat and drive, and then do it all in reverse,” he said. “It’s hard on me after a while.
“It would be better if I could stop it sooner rather than later — before I do end up seriously injured. I don’t have a good track record with luck,” Cameron said.
The fundraising is part of the statewide Associated Firefighters of Illinois Wounded Warrior Program. Since the program began in 2009, about 10 vehicles have been given to veterans.
The Metro-East Professional Firefighters volunteered to participate this year, including fire stations in: Alton, Belleville, Collinsville, East Alton, East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Godfrey, Granite City, Maryville, and Wood River.
Co-chair of the Metro-East Professional Firefighters Nate Kamp, who is also president of Wood River firefighters, said the volunteers are using their visibility in the community as firefighters to highlight “the guys that really need the help and get the recognition they really deserve.”
“We’re driving up and down the streets every day in the big red trucks and the kids are waving at us. ... The adults say ‘Thanks for your service.’ That’s something that we hear a lot. But these guys — like Cameron, he came back and spent over a year in the hospital, over 60 surgeries, and then he just comes back to his house. A lot of times, they’re not as visible as us and they get forgotten about,” Kamp said.
Metro-east firefighters’ goal is to raise $50,000. They hope $25,000 will come just from the sale of red T-shirts that read “support our troops” and picture a kneeling soldier in front of an American flag. Some firefighters can be seen wearing the shirts on Fridays to show their support of military servicemen, in general.
The T-shirts cost $20-$25 and can be purchased at any participating fire station or online. All of the proceeds will go toward the vehicle. Kamp said the firefighters will be bringing the T-shirts to local upcoming events such as Italian Fest in Collinsville and the Bethalto Homecoming.
During the Aug. 24 Collinsville City Council meeting, Mayor John Miller said the firefighters hadn’t yet met their fundraising goal.
Kamp estimated that almost $20,000 was raised Aug. 22 between three weekend events, in addition to corporate donations. He said it brought the amount raised so far to about $40,000.
Fairview Heights’ TGI Fridays will be contributing to the fundraising when it holds a regional bartending competition at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 10. The restaurant chose the Wounded Warrior Program as the charity it will donate funds to this year.
Tickets for the event, which will include an auction of drinks made during the competition, can be purchased at the Fairview Heights location, 6900 N. Illinois St. For more information, call 618-624-8443.
Kamp said Cameron is expected to return to the metro-east for the event.
Miller, a former firefighter and Vietnam veteran, said he met Cameron when he and his family came to the metro-east last time.
“(There’s) nothing more he loves than life itself,” Miller said of Cameron.
Cameron will be presented with the vehicle during the NHRA Midwest Nationals drag races at the Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison on Sept. 27.
He said it wouldn’t have been easy for his family to purchase a brand new car to suit his needs. Cameron’s wife, Christy, is a kindergarten teacher at Thomas Paine Elementary School in Urbana, but he isn’t able to work because of his injuries. He’s thinking of starting his own business some day so he can work for himself.
Cameron wouldn’t say what kind of business it might be. Ever since he was a child, he’s always just wanted to be in the military.
“As soon as I was old enough, I got my parents to sign off on it,” he said during his visit to Collinsville for a fundraising event organized by metro-east firefighters. He traveled to the metro-east along with his wife, Christy, and son, Jared, who will be 2 years old in December.
Cameron enlisted in the Army National Guard just five days after he turned 17. He volunteered to go to Iraq with the first infantry unit that would be deployed at that time. He said he was happy to do it.
But then he met Christy.
In 2006, she was in her last year of high school and Cameron had just started college between training and deployments.
“We had gotten serious fast, so I knew that she wasn’t going to let me re-enlist,” Cameron said. Christy agreed that would have been the case.
“I figured I had six years of my enlistment and that was it to do what I needed to do. And the reason I enlisted in the first place was to deploy,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure I got it done.”
So, about four months later, Cameron said goodbye to Christy, which was bittersweet for both of them.
“I obviously was just proud of him, that he was willing to go over there, but nervous at the same time because you never know what can happen,” Christy said.
Cameron’s job in Iraq was to oversee and protect witnesses and detainees at the Central Criminal Court in Baghdad.
He was providing security on the courthouse’s roof on Aug. 23, 2007, when a section collapsed under him. He fell 70 feet and landed feet-first, shattering both legs, snapping his pelvis and breaking his back.
Both of his legs needed to be amputated below the knee as a result of the injuries.
Christy said for about two years after that, Cameron was in and out of hospitals and other medical facilities for surgeries, rehab and physical therapy.
Cameron continues to need an occasional surgery because of complications caused by infection, particularly in his right leg. But he walks when he can using prosthetics, which he can get around on for a couple of hours before needing a break, Cameron said.
For the last year or so, because of infections, he said he hasn’t been as mobile or able to do some of the things he used to enjoy, such as golfing or hunting.
Cameron stays positive — not every day, he emphasized, but as often as he can.
“It ended up the way it was supposed to,” he said. “... I don’t know if she (Christy) would necessarily agree with this, but I think it’s probably made me a better person just because I’ve experienced a lot more in a lot shorter time than I think a lot of my friends have. I think I’ve just seen a lot more and gotten to experience a lot more, so I know more of what’s going on.”
“And what’s important,” Christy added. Cameron agreed.
When talking about the changes in his life after Iraq, Cameron says his wedding and the birth of his son are in the forefront of his mind.
“I’ve been able to move on with my life,” Cameron said.
Of course, it’s more difficult for him to do lots of things because of his injuries, such as getting around the house and going places with his family.
“There are places we go that I just look and turn around and walk out of because I know I’m not going to be able to get around in there or I won’t be able to go to the bathroom there for a long time,” he said.
In May, not-for-profit organization Operation Welcome You Home gave Cameron a customized Action Trackchair, an all-terrain wheelchair designed to look like it has tank tracks. Its retail cost is between $11,750 and $13,250. Cameron said it will enable him to get out and do the things he enjoys, specifically hunting because the chair includes a place for Cameron to rest his gun.
Christy said the organization contacted them after it found out about Cameron through Homes For Our Troops. The family had previously applied for and gotten a mortgage-free, specially adapted home built in Mahomet by the nonproft organization.
Associated Firefighters of Illinois had also contacted the Crouches after Operation Warrior Wishes, another nonprofit in Illinois, suggested Cameron for the Wounded Warrior Program. Operation Warrior Wishes had previously given Cameron tickets to a Bears game.
“The way it works with a lot of things is they go through existing charities and existing nonprofits,” Cameron said. “...You don’t always have to apply for it.”
Kamp said he’s been happy to give back to Cameron, who has inspired him through his resilience.
“Getting a chance to spend some time with Cameron ... it really puts things into perspective,” Kamp said during the Aug. 22 fundraising. “For somebody that was so young, to have such a traumatic injury at such a young age and then the way he’s been able to cope with it, carry on his life — to get married, to come back and have a child — and still have a generally positive outlook on things and be enjoyable to spend time with ... I think it justifies the things we’ve been doing the last few days.”
Christy said visiting the metro-east has left them “feeling like we’re part of their really big family.”
“It’s just really amazing how much work this was and how many people really care about us but don’t even really know us,” she said.
Want to go?
What: NHRA Midwest Nationals drag races
Where: Gateway Motorsports Park, 700 Raceway Blvd., Madison
When: Before the start of the finals on Sunday, Sept. 27
Ticket information: Visit www.gatewaymsp.com.
What: TGI Fridays regional bartending competition
Where: Fairview Heights’ TGI Fridays, 6900 N. Illinois St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10
Ticket information: Call 618-624-8443.