An Interview With USA 82nd Airborne Division Soldier Walter Crawford.

In this interview I had a chance to speak with U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division Soldier Walter Crawford, who faces the prospect of death daily. Learn more about this pilot and how he manages to stay in shape in a hostile environment.

Article Summary:
  • Even in the midst of the desert Walter Crawford finds the motivation to bodybuild.
  • The military food isn't exactly diet conscious so it's hard to eat clean.
  • It is important to have a spotter when bench pressing.

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The World Of A Bodybuilding Soldier
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Since March 20, 2003, the Iraq War, initially intended to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism and free the Iraqi people from his oppressive grasp, has raged on.

While much of the world has become desensitized to the atrocities that occur daily on Iraqi soil, death and destruction that has become commonplace and reality for its people and the many military personnel charged with restoring order to an increasingly unstable country, the soldiers who live their lives on the frontlines are only too well aware of the low cost placed on life.

Member of the United States Army 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division, Walter Crawford, faces the prospect of death daily. Due to the secrecy surrounding his missions he does not know from one day to the next exactly where will be sent. He fights exhaustion always.

This is a reality all troops must face. To fight for their country they must sacrifice themselves in ways very few could begin to comprehend. Walter is also one of us: a bodybuilder.

When faced with being blown out of the sky and days without sleep - regular life events for Walter - planning workouts and getting one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight becomes less of an issue, more of a luxury and one Walter is, with each passing day, thankful for.

That he has built his body to a respectable 210 pounds while hoisting some impressive poundage's says much about his character. The remarkable thing though is that despite perpetual tiredness, Walter pushes his physique daily in the gym and has bodybuilding goals he is constantly working towards. On the upside he says weight training and eating well give him the strength and endurance to overcome the enemy - whatever form it may take.

He also would like to look "buff" for his wife when his service ends. In the following interview Walter lays everything on the line about his military role and gives some compelling insights into the life of a bodybuilding soldier.

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[ Q ] Where exactly are you based and how long have you been serving there?
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    I am based in on a COB (Combat Operating Base) know as COB Speicher. It's in Northern Iraq, close to Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam. COB Speicher is named after the Pilot who was shot down during Gulf War I and is still listed as MIA (missing in action).

Northern Iraq
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Fulkerson Gym, Camp Speicher, Iraq.

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[ Q ] What division are you in?
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    I am assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion 82nd Airborne Division. (A Co 1-82 ARB)

Alpha Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion 82nd Airborne Division
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Walter On Left With Cpt Scott Before One Of Their Missions. All "Geared Up." With Everything On Its An Extra 75lbs/34kg (Body Armour, Ammo, Accessories, Etc). "But At Least We Look Cool."

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[ Q ] What is your weight and height?
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    I am just shy of 6'1" and my weight is approximately 205 pounds.

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[ Q ] What branch of the military are you in?
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    U.S. Army.

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[ Q ] Why did you choose to enlist in the Army as opposed to any other branch?
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    One of the main reasons I joined the Army is because my father was in the Army for 24 years. Actually my father's father and father's father's father going back to 1670 were in military. It's a tradition in our family. My 10x Great Grandfather was one of the instigators of "Bacon's Rebellion," which helped kick start this great country's road to freedom.

    I originally wanted to fly fighters for the Air Force but things didn't work out that way and I began my packet for the Army's Flight Warrant packet when I was 19 and a year later I was in Army Helicopter Flight School. After 16 years I still love it and have never regretted my decision.

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[ Q ] What made you consider a career in the Military?
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    I love flying helicopters. It's the great feeling of freedom when I am up in the air. The kind of flight training I have had would cost a fortune in the private sector. Besides who else is going to throw you the keys to a 24 million dollar aircraft and say go at it? There is nothing like it in the world.

    Growing up in the military I have had the chance to travel the world with my father. Half my life was spent growing up in Europe. Doing so has given me a wonderful perspective on the world and how different each place is and that each place that I travel too has its very own treasure to experience. I decided to continue my travels by joining the Army. I also have a bit of a patriotic streak and am very proud to serve my country.

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[ Q ] How do you deal with the possible tiredness and physical exhaustion associated with your work?
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    There is nothing about "possible" exhaustion, its something every soldier deals with on a day-to-day basis. Time off is valuable. When we do have some time off, I go to the gym and let some steam off in the weight room. I get to talk to my wife a lot online and get to catch up with all the mischief my kids are up to. Hearing her voice on a rare phone call is very soothing and keeps as me close as possible to her.

    Sleep is something that is not hard to do. Some days I think I am asleep before I get in bed. When we are on a night shift, sleeping during the day with all the light makes it hard, not to mention we are fighting our bodies' natural circadian rhythm.

    Fatigue is a battle we fight everyday after being here so long. Eating as well as possible and getting a good night of sleep are the only weapons we have to fight fatigue. Sometimes though you just have to keep on keeping on.

    The enemy doesn't check in with you to make sure its okay for your schedule or that you got enough sleep to bomb something or attack you. We have to stay physically and mentally strong every day.

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[ Q ] What are your training goals?
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    I guess I have different goals. My immediate goal is to step off the plane and have my wife go, "Dang you look good!" And when we get home and when I get to get "re-acquainted" with her after a year of not seeing her for her to say "DAMN" (laughs).

    But my real goals are to build some size to where I am about 210lbs. I would like to loose some of the bad weight and get to about 12% body fat, I am probably at 20% currently at best guess. My long-term goals are to keep my body as healthy and be as fit as possible.

    I have a long way to go before my kids are grown and I want to be able to keep up with them as best as possible. My youngest is five and I am 37 so I have a few years to go. Besides I have two beautiful girls that I have to protect and watch over.

    I want to learn as much I can about training and living healthy so I can pass it on to my children. I want to teach them that living healthy is not living without.

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[ Q ] How frequent are your missions and how hard is it to structure training around these?
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    Our mission cycle is always shifting, never are things constant. So I have to adapt my workout schedule around my missions. Some missions last three hours, others have gone on for more than eight hours.

    Some missions are in the morning like normal peoples schedules and others start later in the evening. I had a mission the other day where I took off when the sun was setting and got back when it was rising again... something not right about that! The body doesn't like it (laughs)!

    That's the best I can explain it without being too specific.

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[ Q ] What training equipment do you have to work with?
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    I use mostly free weights. We have a few pulley machines available and a few hammer strength type pieces of equipment available as well. For Cardio, when I do it, I use an elliptical machine, but treadmills and stationary bikes are available

    Each gym is different depending on where you go. But usually the equipment is "bare bones" and pretty beat up. We have a mixture of standard weights in pounds and others in kilograms. So going to the gym is also a workout for your math skills as well.

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[ Q ] Describe how "beat up" some of the machinery is.
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    Some of the weight plates are rubber coated and some of the rubber is missing, so it's not too accurate a weight. It's hard to find matching plates for a good weight distribution. Since the equipment was used 24/7 it takes a lot of wear and tear.

    The cushions get worn really fast and the only repair available is Duct Tape. The pulley cables break a lot because of the same amount of use. Fortunately the MWR (Morale Welfare and Recreation) personnel are good about ordering new parts if they are broke hard.

    We really can't complain about the equipment. At least we have some. Under my first deployment I actually used sandbags to do biceps curls. Our gym isn't a Gold's Gym or anything, but I am glad to have what we have. Most of what I have described was what we have had to work with up until recently.

    Now our gym facility is updated. They took all the old gym equipment and put it in there and supplemented it with a few more benches and some more hammer strength stuff. Only problem is we are lacking in plates, but it's more open and spread out. We will be going home in 82 days and I need to get back into my local gym.

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[ Q ] Is bodybuilding very popular where you are stationed?
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    Yes, it is very popular. After three deployments I have noticed that people are attracted to the gym. Most of it is because there is nothing else to do. It's very convenient and it's a social thing too. Some guys never go.

    Their philosophy is that why work out and spend all that time in the gym and watch what you eat when you could be gone tomorrow. And a bullet doesn't care how buff or in shape you are. There is some merit to that thinking. But I look at it like if I am in shape and healthy I have a better chance of survival, if given the chance.

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[ Q ] What is the atmosphere usually like in the gym you usually train at? How do the atmospheres differ from gym to gym?
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    In a military gym the atmosphere is usually the same no matter where it is you go, whether you go to a gym in the states on post or here in the combat zones. Everyone is friendly and more than ready to assist with a spot when lifting heavy or given advice if asked. I've never had a problem with the patrons of the gyms that I workout in.

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[ Q ] Are you able to eat sufficiently for your training goals? What are some of the problems you experience trying to maintain a balanced bodybuilding diet while on duty?
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    Eating is sometimes a luxury. Due to mission cycles we miss meals and have to either carry packaged food I can eat in the cockpit ( granola/ power bars, beef jerky, sunflower seeds and so on). Usually I have to be able to handle it with one hand.

    Sometimes I am forced to eat and go straight to bed so I can get up in eight hours to do another mission and miss another meal. I try and get "ToGo" plates if this happens but this is not always an option.

    If I do make it to the "Mess Hall" I don't always get a great choice of options to eat. Usually everything is fried or overcooked to kill bacteria and such. We have fish a lot, if you like eating an old inner tube. Steak... as we call it sole of shoe. But I understand it is hard to cook for 3000 people at once and we are limited on selections.

    Of course the fast food line is always there: soy burgers, corn dogs, fries, onion rings, pork and beans. I reserve these for my "free" days that I can eat what ever I want. I try to keep these days to once a week as a test to myself to stay somewhat motivated.

    Breakfast are the usual omelets (packaged egg products on a grill), bacon, hash browns, lots of fruit, cereals, Danishes, French toast, regular Toast, English muffins, bagels, fruit juices, shelf stabilized milk.

    This is probably where I falter the most is in my eating and choices.

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[ Q ] What do the ToGo plates contain?
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    The ToGo plates basically are anything you can fit into a Styrofoam container. If you want to load it up on fruit, a salad, corndogs, fries, hot wings or meatloaf, you can put whatever in them. Then you grab a couple of Gatorades or cokes and you got a meal for later.

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[ Q ] So there are two separate lines for different types of food? Tell me more about these. How popular is the "fast food" line?
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[ Q ] You are making me hungry. Describe your current supplement program.
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[ Q ] What supplement brands do you use and why?
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    To be honest I don't use one particular brand. I am not too read up on specific brands. I have tried many different brands. Currently I am using Prolab's N-Large2 whey protein mix, Centrum vitamins and Muscletech Creatine 6000es. The reason I use these products is because they are what is available at the local AAFES Post Exchange (military version of Wal-Mart).

    I need to be schooled on the supplements I know. The weight lifting magazines are so inundated with advertisements I don't know what to use or what actually works and not just the product that gives the magazine the most money to put into it's advertising.

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[ Q ] Describe your current workout schedule.
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    My workout schedules change a lot. I am still trying to figure out what works best for me. Right now I am taking a break. I think I hurt a ligament in my forearm. But I have been working out three days a week - Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Monday and Friday is all upper body and Wednesday is lower body. I increase weight then on the last set I return to the original weight.

Bench
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Walter Crawford Doing Bench Press.

    Upper Body:

    Lower Body:

    I find that it takes me a long time to complete the workouts and sometimes I skip a section due to time constraints. I'm not sure how much I like the workout. I have been doing some reading on full body exercises. I am not sure if you have seen the movie "300," but the workout they did to get in shape involved a lot full body exercises.

    I like the full-body philosophy without a lot of isolation exercises. When in life do you ever do anything in isolation? Especially in sport, nothing is done in isolation. I like to employ full body movements into my routine. Many we already do: squats, bench, clean and press.

Leg press
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Walter Crawford Doing Leg Press.

Cable Crossover
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Walter Crawford Doing Cable Crossover.

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[ Q ] It must be far hard to find the perfect schedule when you are constantly on the move.
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    We are often so busy that I sometimes do not have the energy to go to the gym. This past month of go-go go has taken a toll on me. I have eaten when I can, which means most of it is garbage. I am not happy with myself right now. So I'm gonna change that.

    It's just hard when you are so tired all the time. I equate how we feel to an old rechargeable battery. When its new it takes no time to recharge to get 100% out of it, but after a while it takes longer to recharge and you never get that 100% charge from it, it slowly only gets 90% then 80%. That's what it feels like to be doing this day in and day out.

    You can never get enough sleep and even after eight or nine hours of sleep, you still wake up tired. But we have a job to do and there is no complaining that is gonna fix it so you deal with it and drive on. I can't wait to cuddle up to my wife and sleep for like four days straight. I don't think my kids are going to let me, nor my wife, if you know what I mean (laughs). No rest for the wicked!

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[ Q ] How many of your troops train with you?
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    I usually train alone due to our schedules. I meet people in the gym that I work with and can readily get a spot from anyone there. We have a lot of soldiers who work out at the gym that is open 24/7.

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[ Q ] What are the benefits of working out while serving your country?
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    The biggest benefit is stress relief. We are constantly under the stress of combat. Also being in shape helps you to sleep better, be able to work longer and harder under the grueling conditions of the desert heat.

    And most importantly there is always the possibility that I might have to literally run or fight for my life and I don't want to fall behind and fall prey to the enemy because I was out of breath or weak. As Patton said, "It's not my job to die for my country, It's my job to make the other poor bastard die for his."

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[ Q ] Describe an average day. What are living conditions like?
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    We are swamped on mission right now. We bumped up our time out in the area to an extra hour so days are even longer flying. The shift I am on right now is a night schedule so my days are backwards. I get up at about 7 or 8 PM to get ready for work.

    Yesterday my a/c unit stopped blowing cold air and was just blowing... air from outside. Well when its 120 deg outside and I live in a plywood house it gets hot inside. I ended up getting just four to five hours of good sleep. So I am hoping that they get here soon to put a new one in. Of course it's blowing cold air right now. It's only 90 right now so the unit can keep up, but in the heat of the day it struggles.

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[ Q ] Tell me about the ER?
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    The ER is a pretty nasty place. We have put a lot of guys in there. Our doctors also take care of the Iraqi (enemy and friendly). So we try our best to relieve them of that duty, if you know what I mean.

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[ Q ] Do you ever find the conditions hard training-wise?
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    Well recently our a/c in the gym doesn't work so it's hot working out. They have a thermometer in there and get this...its been 100 degrees or higher when we work out. The highest it has been is 110 inside. Talk about brutal. But I have managed to keep on track working out, the heat deters a lot of people from coming to the gym but there are a lot of diehards that keep coming.

    See the large tube things at the top of the photos I supplied you with - that's the "air conditioner" that really doesn't work that well. We spent about three weeks without a generator so the a/c wasn't working and as a result we had a gym with no air movement and 120deg F/ 48deg C temps.

Gym Gym
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Inside The Gym.

    Let me explain what it's like: take your oven and put it on the lowest setting you can and open the oven door. Sit in front of the oven and work out. Now when you go outside its equal to taking your hair dryer and turning it on hot or high and sticking it in your face. You know that "take your breath away feeling..." that's what its like outside when the wind is blowing, which is 80% of the time.

    Oh yeah, throw some sand in front of the blow dryer so its gets in your face and your clothes (laughs)! Also inside the gym you can see some of the equipment we have so really we can't complain too much. I remember when I went to Afghanistan in 2002 and we used sandbags to workout with (laughs). But we just got a shipment in of a bunch of new equipment. So it's getting better as time goes on.

    I put in a photo of our "refreshment" center. The man in the photo is SFC Hill. He is the supervisor of the gym. He is of course overall responsible for the gym. He has done a great job with almost nothing and built it up from there. He's been great helping me out in the gym too. Great motivator, he is always helping me with my form or questions about exercises.

Refreshment center
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SFC Hill Getting A Refreshment.

    In the chow hall when he sees me he checks my plate to make sure I'm not "cheating," (laughs). Another problem: the bottled water we get is, well let's say not so tasty. Its been sitting in the sun for so long in the bottle that we found out water can actually go bad. Sometimes it tastes like the plastic that it's in. If you put enough Gatorade in it, it does not taste as bad though. But you have to consume a lot of water in this heat. We deal with what we have to.

    There is a photo of one of my friends SGT J doing a back workout. SGT J is also partly responsible for the gyms maintenance and upkeep. Making sure the towels are supplied and plenty of water is in the coolers and the equipment is in decent working order. They are also responsible for the safety of the patrons in the gym.

SGT J doing back workout
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SGT J Doing Pulldowns.

    You won't believe how many "experts" there are that try to lift by themselves, without a spotter, trying to bench 250lbs and get it stuck on their chest. I will send a photo of a thermometer that is in the gym; it was taken on a day when the a/c unit was out of order.

    Normally it's in the high 90s and low 100s when the unit is working. Suck is still suck! But the good news is at 120 we have our very own sauna! I walked out of the gym with a t-shirt soaked to the core, great weight loss plan if you ask me!

thermometer
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Temperature Inside The Gym.

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[ Q ] The area you are stationed at is very hostile. How do you deal with the fact that you could be seriously hurt, or worse?
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    My faith in God and knowing that he is ever watching over me is what makes me have no fear. As well as trusting in my crew chief's ability to give me a solid aircraft. Each aircrew faces the enemy every time we go up into the skies over Iraq. We get shot at on every mission; most of the time you don't see the rounds. At night when giant flaming pumpkins come hurling at you... you definitely notice it. We have a job to do and the ground guys depend on us.

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[ Q ] What keeps you going day in, day out?
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    Simply the knowledge that God will take care of me and bring me home to my wife and children is the main driving force that keeps me going strong. The camaraderie between my fellow pilots and support of our chain of command is a big factor in our attitude.

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[ Q ] How are you doing right now?
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    I am doing well. We have a little less than two months left so I should be home for my son's birthday in October and I know my wife is ready for me to start decorating for Halloween! I'm so looking forward to coming home.

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[ Q ] What are your plans for when you return home? And will you return to duty in the near future?
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    I am looking forward to getting back to "civilization" very much. I can't remember being able to just get up and go someplace to get something to eat anytime I wanted to. Even sleeping with someone else in the bed seems almost foreign to me right now.

    I think the hardest thing to get used to will be the quiet. Here there is constant noise: Aircraft, generators running 24/7, large diesel vehicles everywhere, radios constantly blaring, and the occasional rocket impact. But I will welcome it with open arms.

    As far as returning, there is always that over the horizon. We are supposedly guaranteed a year at home in the states before returning, so I have at least a year of relative normalcy. So I will do everything in my powers to make that time the best time with the family and be as "normal" as we can.

    I plan on fixing the back porch, installing new kitchen cabinets (she already has a honey-to-do-list from h-ll waiting on me) and I want to finish my degree next spring. I finished a class while I was here so I have just four classes left to get my Psychology Degree. I got an A in my last class that I finished two weeks ago, so I'm almost there.

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[ Q ] Thank you so much Walter for your time and for sharing your experiences with me. All the very best and keep doing your country proud.
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    Thank you David, I appreciate the interview brother.

Walter Crawford On Right
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Walter Crawford On Right.

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