Darrell Griffin Sr. tensed with anticipation the moment the C-130 Hercules hit the tarmac. As the noisy turboprop cargo plane’s wheels rolled along the runway of Baghdad International Airport, the September heat felt like 140 degrees. Griffin stood up, shifting under the weight of 80 pounds of body armor and a Kevlar helmet. The 55-year-old Van Nuys accountant grabbed his bags, stepped out the door and ran for his life toward the terminal. There could be snipers, he was told. He knew all about snipers. March 21, 2007, Baghdad, Camp StrikerStaff Sgt. Darrell Griffin Jr. met his squad mates at 0800, grinning and upbeat. The other soldiers of Charger Company were tired and restless. They’d been in Iraq almost a year and the deployment was wearing on them. Too many long patrols in their massive, wheeled Strykers. Too many bodies blown up by roadside bombs. Comrades shot to pieces. They hadn’t slept well or showered for days. They didn’t even have food. But Griff, all 6 feet 2 inches, 240 pounds of him, couldn’t stop smiling. He’d been blessed in his time with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. He’d been writing a book about his experience and had hundreds of pages of material. “I feel like God’s got something really big planned for me today,” he said. Two hours later, a sniper shot him through the back of the head. March 21, 2007, Van NuysDarrell Griffin Sr. was visiting a client. His cell phone rang – Kim, his wife. He answered and found her upset. “Skip’s been shot,” she told him, using Darrell Jr.’s nickname. “How bad is it?” he asked, hoping this was just another flesh wound requiring stitches. His wife began to cry. “It’s fatal,” she told him. He dropped the phone and ran out of the office in tears. That night, he got a knock on his door from two men, dressed in green Army uniforms – casualty assistance officers. His 36-year-old son’s mission was over. His own was just beginning. I am attempting to create an account of two tours of combat in Iraq as an infantryman. I am trying to make sense of a world that I had never known until the first time that I had to kill a man. A world where men wanted to kill me and a world where friends didn’t just move away but died violent deaths on the field of battle. … If nothing else, this attempt at a book will hopefully put to rest the demons that I have courted by killing and living in this chaotic world for two years. – Darrell Griffin Jr. Growing up in Van Nuys, Skip never put much stock in school. He spent a lot of time in detention. He ran away from home more than once. He dropped out of Van Nuys High School and got a GED. But he never stopped studying. He was a macho guy who worked out and held manly, physically demanding jobs, but he enjoyed nothing more than sitting down with a nice glass of Merlot, Mozart’s Requiem and a philosophical text. The Bible. Kierkegaard. Nietzsche. Chomsky. Skip inhaled them, reading three at a time and racking up hundreds of dollars worth of bills at esoteric bookstores. It was his dream to join their scholarly ranks, to publish a text of his thoughts on life and war and all the horrible things he’d seen in far away places called Najaf, Tal Afar and Sadr City. He’d been poking away at it for years, writing out longhand, diagramming his thoughts in elegant, tight printing. He taught himself to read and write Greek so he could channel the thoughts of his ancient heroes. The philosopher with the M4 rifle called his ruminations on spirituality, life and love “The Long Conversation.” After a stint in the National Guard, Skip enlisted in the Army in June 2001 and his thoughts turned to military affairs. When he deployed to Iraq for the first time in October 2004, his father encouraged him to keep a journal, and they planned to transform the 400 pages of ponderings, battle books and e-mails into a book. “He was the smartest man I’ve ever known,” Darrell Griffin Sr. said. “He was synthesizing the great philosophers with the realities of a foot soldier.” With his son dead, his father knew he had to complete that synthesis. As he made arrangements for Skip’s funeral, he began planning to pick up where his son left off. Please pray for this guy because he is such a good man and it doesn’t look like he will make it right now. The other 2 injured are in serious but stable condition and are expected to be ok. Dad, I would love nothing more than to be a child again being held in your arms as I have always remembered. when we meet again I need a hug from you and mom and I need to just cry in your arms. Well, back to being a leader. I have to be strong for my guys because they are watching my reaction to all of this and follow my lead when it comes to the mood of things. – Darrell Griffin Jr. He signed the 2005 e-mail “your faithful son, Lil’ Skip.” The soldier’s messages back to his wife, Diana, father, stepmother and five siblings alternated between gruesome details of the horror of battle – a dog dragging away a corpse’s head, a body identified only by its shoes because nothing else remained, trucks awash with blood and guts – and tender remembrances of home. He called Diana frequently and sent her love poems. “He’d ask me to pray for him and his soldiers,” she said. “He said, `I hope you won’t look at me differently for the things I had to do.’ I told him, `Don’t stop and think, just do what you have to.”‘ And sometimes, those things were terrible. He pulled a comrade from a Stryker whose legs stayed behind in the wrecked armored vehicle. He killed at least eight men. He’d smelled the stink of death before and ducked bullets as an emergency medical technician in Compton, but he was profoundly affected by the war. Two days after his son’s death, Darrell Griffin Sr. placed a call to Rep. Howard Berman’s office. He was a writer, too, he told them, and he wanted to go to Iraq. He wanted to meet the men who served with his son. He wanted to see where Skip died. When he called Berman’s office, Griffin was upfront: I’m a conservative Republican, the congressman’s a liberal Democrat and I didn’t vote for him. But I need your help. Staffers began making calls. The grieving father also reached out to Alex Kingsbury, an associate editor with U.S. News & World Report who’d interviewed his son at length a few days before he died. Kingsbury had met Griff while embedded with Charger Company in early March and included him as a minor character in a piece about a firefight near a helicopter crash. The two hit it off and enjoyed a long conversation about Nietzsche and Marshall McLuhan in the middle of the desert. “He looked to philosophy as a crutch,” Kingsbury said. “It was a filter for the tough, tough things he’d seen. In Iraq, there are horrible things you have to deal with daily. He wasn’t a mechanical killer who didn’t think about what he was doing. He thought about it. A lot.” As of late I have started to wonder whether or not we are killing insurgents or merely combatants fighting each other in a “war of all against all.” At this stage of the war, I choose not to use the word “insurgent” as a description of who I am trying to kill. – Darrell Griffin Jr. Darrell Griffin Sr. and Diana Griffin both asked Kingsbury for any other notes or memories he had of the sergeant. He did – nearly half an hour of video he’d shot in a deserted mess tent. And Griff’s death hit him hard, as well. He’d been so impressed by his eloquence that he was planning a longer article on warriors’ struggles to cope with the death they deal out daily. Griff was going to be the main subject. The Griffins asked Kingsbury to speak at the funeral, which he did, sharing Griff’s passion for history, great minds and the military’s traditions. Then he wrote an intensely personal, haunting account of their brief meeting in Iraq and the legacy Darrell Griffin Jr. left behind, published in early May. The article, peppered with Griff’s e-mails home, really got things rolling. Berman read it, Pentagon officials read it, everyday soldiers read it. His father’s quest to get to Baghdad suddenly had much more weight when people realized whose life he was trying to retell. “It made it more meaningful, reading what his son had written,” Berman said. “It changed me. It personalized it. He grew up in my area. … This is what he was going though. This is what he thought about, this is how he felt.” He personally pressed the Department of Defense to accredit Griffin Sr. as a journalist. With Berman’s help, the man who’d only authored a text on the importance of small business got credentialed to embed as a journalist with his son’s Stryker unit as it finished its Baghdad deployment. Skip had told him what it was like, but Griffin Sr. never felt like he got the full picture. He needed to fill it in himself. “I had to experience that fear,” he said. “I had to understand what he’d been through.” He’d had a little time in the military, joining the National Guard as a cook to avoid Vietnam in the 1970s, but nothing like he was about to experience. “Darrell Jr. was a big, tall, strapping, Rambo-looking guy,” Kingsbury said. “His father’s not muscular, not strapping-looking at all and he’s an accountant as opposed to an infantryman in Iraq. But Darrell Sr.’s a brave guy. He might not look the same as his son, but he’s just as brave.” It took a few months, but by early September, Griffin Sr. found himself shuttling through Baghdad hot zones on his way to Camp Striker. It was hot and frightening. His military escorts to the airport in Kuwait each dressed in civilian clothes to blend in and strapped on a pair of .45s for the drive. He slept in Army tents and rode around in a heavily armored truck known as The Rhino he described as “a Winnebago on steroids.” Griffin Sr. missed Charger Company’s last mission, but spent three days meeting the soldiers his son loved, fought for and died alongside. He ate in the dining facility where his son chowed down, used the phones with which he called home, shopped at the same post exchange. “My vision of Skip is my son, the kid I used to change diapers for,” he said. “These guys painted a different picture: of a real man, a hero.” The kind of guy who could have stayed back while his squad fought things out, but instead waded right into the firefight. A leader who told his troops to call him Griff or Darrell when the brass wasn’t around, rather than by his rank. Griff was laid back back at the base, but fierce and intense in the field. He won a Bronze Star for valorous conduct while dragging a wounded comrade to safety. He’d start each mission by placing his fist on his chest and uttering his motto: “Strength and Honor.” When the smoke cleared and they headed back to base, he’d tell them to light up cigars and celebrate making it home alive. March 21, 2007, Sadr CityGriff’s Stryker hit Iris Avenue when small arms fire pierced the morning air. The sergeant was at the rear, head poking out of the hatch. The squad heard a crack and saw Griff’s body seize up. They yanked him back inside and saw the head wound, just below his helmet. A sergeant cradled him. A lieutenant screamed for him to hold on, and they rushed him to another Stryker to administer first aid. His breath came in ragged spurts, then slowed to shallow, feeble gasps. The soldiers called in an air evac chopper and it lifted off, speeding him to the hospital. He stopped breathing on the way. Griff was dead. Oct. 3, 2007, Van NuysDarrell Griffin Sr. sat in his small office, surrounded by pictures of his six children and a box with his eldest son’s possessions. A battle flag, notebooks, dog tags and a sweat-stained hat sat on the table. The Army had wiped Griff’s laptop hard drive clean as a matter of security before sending it home, but Griffin Sr. had pages of hand-written notes, e-mails and Kingsbury’s videos. Armed with the memories and experience of Iraq, he thought he could reconstruct the book, his final collaboration with his son. Griff would live on in words. “There’s no such thing as closure,” he said. “Nothing will close that hole. But if I don’t finish the book, it’ll be incomplete. I want to tie up those loose ends.” email@example.com (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!
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