Julie McDonald Commentary: Army Veteran’s Search for Peace Thwarted by Gravel Mine

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Two decades ago, in 2001, Chaplain Scott Crossfield parachuted into Afghanistan with 198 men in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Ranger Battalion and Special Forces — only five weeks after terrorists slammed commercial airliners into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

They landed on an old oilfield with the goal of finding Osama bin Laden, mastermind behind the nation’s worst terrorist attack. Crossfield, who provided religious services and counseling during normal times, also trained as an emergency medical technician to serve in the casualty control point. Two members were killed during their operation, which lasted until January, but their search of the Tora Bora caves proved fruitless.

Crossfield had earlier experience in the Middle East. His reserve Military Police unit had deployed during the first Gulf War from January to May 1991. They followed the 3rd Armored Division into southern Iraq and ended up the last night of the war with the 1st Infantry Division on the edge of Kuwait next to the northernmost oil field set on fire. As MPs, he and his colleagues cared for the prisoners of war and secured the supply line.

“I was a budding historian and photographer, so I interviewed people and took color slide photos, which I turned into a presentation that I did for over 50 groups and the Veterans Museum here,” Crossfield said.

He deployed again to Afghanistan in 2004 with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, serving as chaplain leading Protestant services in Bagram for 10 months and occasionally providing religious support to remote forward operating bases.

Last week, President Joe Biden announced plans to withdraw the 2,500 remaining U.S. troops from the “forever war” in Afghanistan, describing the Middle East conflict as America’s longest war. The drawdown will begin in May and finish in September.

Crossfield described the 20th century history of Afghanistan, which changed from a western-leaning nation in the 1950s and 60s where women had rights and wore western clothing to a nation invaded by the Soviets in 1979 and, a decade later, plunged into a civil war for a dozen years. He compared Afghanistan to the tribes of Israel in the Promised Land, a warrior people who fought among themselves but united when confronted by an outside threat like Russia or the United States. Guests were fine but outsiders needed to leave.

“One popular term back then is that you can’t buy an Afghani, but you sure can rent one,” Crossfield said. He noted that U.S. troops rented local warlord fighters to find Bin Laden, but the terrorist mastermind paid them more. Bin Laden also married women in the area, which bound him to the local people.

“He was smart that way.”

A U.S. military special operations unit finally tracked down bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed him May 2, 2011.

“Bottom line, we need to leave Afghanistan,” Crossfield said. “We should have never built up such a large force there.”

But, he added, the United States should keep small special operations units in the country to monitor activity, which it probably will.

“If we do pull out in full, it could lead to collapse of the country, just like South Vietnam or much of Iraq with ISIS,” Crossfield said. “It pains me to see civilians suffer, but we can’t be there forever. I pray it doesn’t fall back into the hands of the Islamic mullahs. They will return it back hundreds of years.”

Whatever happens in the Middle East, Crossfield left the military after 30 years, seeking a peaceful and quiet life after three tours of combat duty. He met Pastor Joseph Martin of Toledo First Baptist Church in the early 1990s while both attended Golden Gate Seminary’s extension in Portland. Later, he served as youth pastor intern at Toledo while earning theology credentials to serve as an Army chaplain. He married his wife, Lawna, in 1995 at Toledo First Baptist Church.

“This is my spiritual home,” said Crossfield, a Minnesota native whose wife is from Hawaii. They returned to Toledo every two or three years for visits while he served in the Army. Finally, when preparing for a tour in Germany where he could have earned his rank as a full colonel, he felt called to leave the military.

The Toledo church had an opening for a part-time family counselor, so he applied. They looked at 40 or 50 places to live, trying to find a location where the family could experience peace and quiet, especially as Crossfield suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and lung issues.

He met Gail Wallace, owner of Gee Cee’s Truck Stop, who showed him a four-bedroom home on Foster Creek Road, on six acres at the end of a dead-end road, overlooking a green valley.

“It’s like God said, ‘This is it. Home. You could grow old here.’”

The Crossfields, who have three grown children, bought their home in 2012, but before long, loud heavy equipment rumbled all day every day, beeping backup signals as they removed 20 feet of topsoil and hauled it away before digging for gravel at 451 Mandy Road.

“To leave overseas and just want peace and quiet to heal, and now I get constant construction level noise and toxic smoke,” Crossfield said.

When Crossfield complained to county officials, they referred him to the state Department of Natural Resources, which issued the original 20-acre gravel pit permit to Eagle Cliff Northwest LLC of Cathlamet. Eagle Cliff owns nearly 40 acres along the Cowlitz River, and the parcel map lists the current use as agricultural.

The pit, which is next to Crossfield’s home, didn’t exist when he bought their property in 2012 or he never would have purchased it.

That’s the year Rockford, who has had a DNR permit since 1995 to use 20 acres for gravel mining and the rest for growing Christmas trees, bought the land from Ron Wallace and started mining gravel, a use grandfathered in to Lewis County zoning rules. The company, operating as L Rock Industries Inc., provides sand and gravel to Lewis County.

Crossfield planted trees to block the sound and view, but nothing could muffle the constant noise from beeping trucks and rock crushers on land still zoned agricultural.

In 2014, when Lemmie Rockford, owner of Eagle Cliffs Mining, and his general manager, John Bredfield, asked for expansion of their gravel pit by another 17 acres, more than 20 residents objected, describing the gravel pit as unsightly and complained about noise and dust pollution. Others expressed concern about damage to the nearby wastewater pit for Gee Cee’s.

Despite the complaints to the Lewis County Planning Commission, Rockford planned to move forward with expanding his Mandy Road gravel pit south of the Cowlitz River and east of Vader, saying in 2014 that he’s not bothering anybody. Work continued at the gravel pit for six years.

In December 2017, a request to rezone property near the existing gravel mine from agricultural to mineral resources cited a lack of mineral resources in the area and the property’s proximity to Interstate 5 to serve Centralia and Chehalis.

In July 2019, Precision Paving Plus LLC of Vancouver submitted a State Environmental Policy Checklist. But in early 2020, after concerns expressed by neighbors about the land owned by Gene and Angela Watson being in a floodplain and a gravel mine polluting nearby properties and downstream water resources, the county required a full Environmental Impact Statement. County officials said neighbors would have an opportunity to comment when the EIS is submitted.

At the time, Crossfield described his negative experiences living next to gravel mining operation.

“Right now, the noise, it’s a nightmare,” Crossfield said. “Double it, right across the river. People have started to try and just move, because they realize, ‘I don’t know if the county is going to do anything to stop these people.’”

Last week, Crossfield shared his concerns with Lewis County commissioners.

“I have been living a nightmare for over eight years,” he said. “As a disabled vet with PTSD, and just wanting to live in peace, my nerves are pretty frayed.”

He said he represented eight families directly affected by the mine, and noted he had asked Lewis County Commissioner Gary Stamper many times for help.

“The owner ensured me last year they were out of gravel and would be closing in the next couple years,” Crossfield said.

But instead an expansion is in the works.

“My neighbors and I have to act if we want any sense of sanity in our homes,” Crossfield said. “I still do not know the details of the expansion, but numerous people have told me it is underway. The owner himself told me the permit was a done deal.”

Crossfield said he asked Stamper and county permitting officials for details but received no response. Stamper didn’t respond to requests for comment for this column.

When neighbors sought help from the county to curb noise and operating hours, they were told the mine operated under a DNR permit so it was the state’s responsibility.

“We have sought help from the DNR only to be told that they don’t monitor permits anymore and that the state law requires the county to monitor mines permitted by the DNR.

“For eight years we have been blown off by both the county and the DNR. Eight long years.”

He said commissioners enacted a noise ordinance but exempted gravel pits.

“We are outraged,” Crossfield said. “You have already condemned us to 10 years of misery in our homes, and now you want to extend that 15 more years?”

Why doesn’t he move?

“Who in their right mind would want to live next to a nightmare like this?” Crossfield said. “What will that do to our resale values?”

He and his neighbors are fed up with government inaction, he said, and demanded that the county stop expansion of the gravel pit, “or else we will take legal action.”

“We don’t want to go this route, but it is the only option left to us after eight years of government inaction,” Crossfield said. “This is a major injustice and it needs to stop.”

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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