These are some of the words used by Norwood resident Marti Schmalz to describe her friend Aaron “Moon” Cruttenden. “He was so truthful and so accepting of what is. He was not out there to change people, although he may have been out to change the world,” she says.
Cruttenden, 25, was killed in Afghanistan on Nov. 7, while serving as an Army combat engineer during a route-clearance operation in Kunar province. The U.S. Army corporal died from wounds sustained after his unit came under small-arms fire from insurgents, according to the Department of Defense.
He leaves behind a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Dusti-Rai Ferrin, who lives with her grandparents in Nucla.
Dusti-Rai was the love of her father's life, and the reason he entered the Army in the first place, according to Cruttenden's friends.
In 1996, Cruttenden, the oldest of five children, moved to Norwood from Mesa, Ariz.; he was 14. But he did not attend school; he had been home-schooled since about fifth grade, according to his friend Evan Allen, 26, who quickly befriended Cruttenden in Norwood.
“He couldn’t be caged – he could not function in a classroom,” but Cruttenden, who spent a lot of time caring for his siblings, Allen says, eventually earned his GED.
“He was one of the first kids that came in and saw me as a person,” says Schmalz, 60, whose two boys Mesa and Skyler spent a lot of time with Cruttenden. “He was everything you want youth to be. A visionary, engaged in life, unafraid to try things.”
Cruttenden worked a lot of odd jobs, but when he hooked up with Dane Robinson and his arborist business, Robinson Tree and Trail, he seemed to have found his niche. From 2002 to 2007, Cruttenden spent his summers working for Robinson, returning to Arizona during the winter to help his grandfather, an electrician.
“He was on point, respectful, hard-working, and one of the best employees I've ever had,” says Robinson, 38, adding that Cruttenden quickly developed a passion for climbing trees. Sometimes he would move so fast, and carry so much weight, Robinson would say, “Don’t overdo it, pace yourself.” Cruttendon would call back, “This is my pace.”
He even tried to refuse his first couple of paychecks, says Robinson, noting that Cruttenden was generous almost to a fault. “We became good, loyal friends,” says Robinson. “He was an inspiration to me.”
Robinson credits Cruttenden for rescuing him from a potentially fatal accident several years ago, when the tree Robinson was tied to began to fall over. “It was basically a life-or-death situation,” he explains. Standing on the ground below, Cruttenden took in what was happening and reacted quickly, tossing Robinson a knife to cut the ropes attached to his body so he could push himself away from the tree. “He opened the blade and tossed the knife up to me as I was falling. Then he tried to catch me – and I had spikes on my feet!” Robinson was lucky to walk away with only a broken wrist.
For Schmalz, what stood out was Cruttendon’s complete acceptance and lack of judgment of people. He lived his life with no apologies, she says. His attitude was, “If this starts bothering me, I’ll go do something else.”
One of the things Cruttenden became known for among his friends was his “canyon runs.”
“Oh, yeah,” says Allen. “We’d be having a bonfire at the house and Aaron would suddenly yell out, ‘Canyon run!’ and disappear into the shadows. You’d shine a flashlight and he’d yell, ‘No flashlights!”
“He’d run full-on, down the side of a canyon like a deer, leaping from rock to rock,” says Allen. Sometimes “he’d come over to my house at 11:30 at night and say to me, “Want to go for a hike?’” Allen often joined Cruttenden during his night runs, and remembers one night in particular when Cruttendon got caught up in a barbed wire fence as he tried to leap over it. He was bleeding from his knee to his foot, but he just lay on the ground and laughed. Then he tied a piece of his torn pants around his wound and took off running again.
“He’d also have these massive spills at work,” where he’d be carrying all kinds of things at once and then take a tumble and cut himself. Cruttenden’s response was always something along the lines of, “Ah, whatever.”
“Sometimes I would think he had superhuman strength, superhuman powers,” says Allen. “The guy had enough room on his shoulders for way too many people.”
But “there was always a message in everything he did.” And his advice to Allen was, “If you're always doing your best, you don't have to make excuses or answer to anything.”
One of Schmalz's fondest images of Cruttenden is his “most amazing stretch,” big, long and deliberate – like a cat. She also had many occasions to witness him maniacally climbing rock – unroped. “As a mother, I’d be too nervous to watch him, afraid I’d make him fall or something,” she says, noting, “He was reckless, but he was never careless.” When he was around, “you always felt you had to step it up.”
A turning point in Cruttenden's life was the birth of his daughter Dusty-Rai, in 2008. “He seemed to grow up quickly,” says Robinson. “It was the first time I saw Aaron confused, worried. He didn't have a panic button, except for with his daughter.”
It was a complete surprise to Cruttenden's friends when, in March 2008, during a visit to Arizona, he enlisted in the Army.
“He was so giving, he was so good at doing anything. When he had Dusti, he wanted something, but didn't know how to do it. His choice became the Army,” says Schmalz.
“He said he didn't want to start from zero,” says Robinson. “He told me, with the Army he had money, life insurance…”
Stationed at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, Cruttenden was deployed to Afghanistan in December of 2009, arriving there on Christmas day, according to Allen.
Before he went overseas, Allen remembers that Cruttenden began teaching himself Arabic, but he found all the different dialects confusing.
“I'd like to be able to just say, 'Hey, how are you? I'm Aaron,” he told Allen. Cruttenden apparently knew he would be clearing routes of IEDs for coalition forces and the Afghan people, and he was looking forward to being “the one that would make it safer for kids,” says Allen.
After his arrival in Afghanistan, Cruttenden told Allen how much he hated the barracks. “He thought it was the most depressing place. But he became the 'go-to' guy,” setting up his room with music and video games – a “chill spot,” where his fellow soldiers could gather and escape the reality of war.
When Cruttenden last visited Colorado in May, Allen noticed “a different Aaron.” He told his friend, “It's hard to be positive out there. It's so complicated….”
“Aaron had to become a different person over there to really deal with it,” says Allen. “You could see the toll of the personality shift.” On that visit home, Cruttenden spent as much time as he could with his daughter before going back overseas.
“He was always there when you needed it,” says Allen. “Even when you didn't think you needed it. He didn't have much time for sadness or grief.”
Cruttenden had served a total of eight months in Afghanistan and was scheduled to return home for the holidays. Assigned to the 161st Engineer Support Company, 27th Engineer Battalion, 20th Engineer Brigade, he was killed Sunday, Nov. 7, alongside Specialist Dale Kridlo, of Hughestown, Pa. Cruttenden will be promoted to the rank of sergeant, posthumously.
“It's easy in this country not to even know it's in a war,” says Schmalz. “We're sending the cream of our crop over there, and we ought to be supporting them more... We feel so unempowered, and somehow we have to change that.”
The tragic irony of Cruttenden's death is that ultimately he achieved his goal. The benefits package he set up when he joined the Army will provide financial support to Dusty-Rai as she grows older. And while nothing can make up for the loss of Cruttenden, his spirit lives on through his daughter, the most precious gift he left behind.
“He was born a hero, that kid,” says Robinson, with an evident crack in his voice.
Members of the 27th and 161st Engineer Division of Fort Bragg, N.C., escorted Cruttenden's casket after it arrived at the Montrose Regional Airport on Nov. 15. Memorial services will be held in Grand Junction and Hotchkiss on Wednesday, Nov. 17.
Many of Cruttenden's friends and family gathered to celebrate his life last Friday during a "Moon Jam" at Two Candles in Norwood. According to Robinson, per Cruttenden's wishes, his ashes will be spread in Norwood during a private ceremony at a later date.
Along with his daughter, Cruttenden leaves behind his parents, Yvonne and Scott Featheringill of Hotchkiss, and Steve Cruttenden and Annette Roth of Lake Odessa, Mich.; grandparents Lynn and Shirley Wencel of Apache Jct., Ariz, and Frank and Pat Cruttenden of Delton, Mich.; as well as five brothers and three sisters.