2009 Air Force Times
Winner
SSgt Mercedes Crossland
97th Air Mobility Wing, Altus Air Force Base

Photographer 31st Fighter Wing public affairs office at Aviano Air Base, Italy

Originally from New York City, she grew up in a tight-knit family with her Cuban mother, African American father and three sisters.

As a photographer, Staff Sgt. MercedesKimble Crossland is used to seeing life through a lens.

Still, a voluntary deployment to Iraq in 2007 gave the 38-year-old New York native a perspective like none she had ever had.

Crossland spent a year as a member of a weapons intelligence team, taking pictures of unexploded roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices.

Her images, taken on 120 missions, were used to create a database of IEDs and led to the prosecution of nine suspected terrorists.

"I can honestly tell you I was scared for my life every day," said Crossland, who now works in public affairs at Aviano Air Base, Italy. But "I enjoyed what I did for our country."

For her embodiment of the Air Force, both on the job and off duty, Crossland is Air Force Times' 2009 Airman of the Year.

It's her regard for others that earns Crossland the respect of her peers, said Senior Airman Jennifer Flores, who nominated her former mentor for the honor.

"She's caring," Flores said. "She always wants to know about your well-being. … She says, 'Don't worry about me, but how are you doing?'"

Crossland showed her selflessness during her time at Altus Air Force Base, Okla., according to those with whom she worked.

Her supervisor at Altus, Honor Schulte-Usui, remembered the time Crossland came to the rescue of a new airman on base who was getting married. The young woman didn't have any friends or family nearby to give her a wedding so she and her fiancé re­signed themselves to a ceremony at the courthouse.

Crossland decided hastily exchanged "I do's" just wouldn't do and pulled together a celebration for the couple to remember. She took the bride-to-be to J.C. Penney's to buy a bridal gown, hit up the Super Wal-Mart for hors d'oeuvres and champagne, recruited Schulte-Usui to bake the wedding cake and offered her own home for the occasion.

"I am a romantic at heart," Crossland said. "I did it because I wanted her to have something she could remember for the rest of her life."

To Schulte-Usui and others who know Crossland, the wedding was another example of her ability to lead.

"She can inspire people to do whatever needs to be done," Schulte-Usui said. "She is an inspirational person in that if she's willing to do it and smile the whole time, it pulls you in … so that you're willing to give whatever you can give."

Crossland's mentoring of a young woman who was having trouble adjusting to life in the Air Force is particularly revealing of her character, Schulte-Usui said.

After months of poor performance, the airman faced being kicked out of the Air Force.

Crossland "said, 'No, let me work with her,'" Schulte-Usui recalled. "She took the girl under her wing." She accompanied the airman to counseling, found additional support and even brought the airman to her home and talked through the night with her.

The airman slowly showed progress; she was later named her squadron's airman of the quarter.

Crossland takes an interest in the lives of her airmen — especially young women — because she wants them to reap the benefits of military service that she has.

"What I wanted for them was to give them everything that I had gotten from the Air Force and let them go with it," she said.

Crossland didn't join the Air Force until she was 27. After high school, Crossland decided she wasn't ready for college. She had jobs as a receptionist and in day care before pulling the graveyard shift as a toll booth collector.

During the day, she went to college, earning her bachelor's degree in computer science in 4½ years. She decided to enlist to get help paying for her master's degree, and now has four credits to go.

The commitment to her own education. The concern for her fellow airmen. The dangerous, outside-the-wire duty in Iraq. They all exemplify the kind of airman and person Crossland is.

"I don't know a lot of people who would volunteer for a [yearlong tour] away from family, away from friends," Flores said. "Doing that says it all."