Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Life and Death of a U.S. Soldier in Iraq

This week's cover story at U.S. News and World Report on the life and combat death of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Darrell Griffin is one of the most moving journalistic accounts of military valor I've ever read. Check out the introduction to Griffin's story, written by U.S. News correspondent Alex Kingsbury:

Four days before his death, Army Staff Sgt. Darrell Ray Griffin Jr., an infantry squad leader in Baghdad, sent an E-mail to his wife, Diana. "Spartan women of Greece used to tell their husbands, before they went into battle, to come back with their shields or laying on them, dying honorably in battle. But if they did not return with their shield, this showed that they ran away from the battle. Cowardice was not a Spartan virtue ... Tell me that you love me the same by me coming back with my shield or on it."

A few days later, Diana replied. "Are you ok??? I haven't heard from you since Sunday and it is now Wednesday ... I know you said you were going on a dangerous mission ... I get so nervous when I don't hear from you ... phone call or e-mail ... I just hope and pray your ok honey ... "

It was an E-mail Griffin would never read.

As the Baghdad security plan draws thousands more troops into densely populated parts of the Iraqi capital, the danger from roadside bombs and small-arms fire grows exponentially. The city has now surpassed Anbar province as the deadliest region for U.S. troops. Since the war began, more than 3,370 American soldiers and marines have been killed and more than 25,000 wounded in Iraq, and, in terms of American casualties, the past six months have been the costliest of the war. American commanders say they expect casualties to increase in the next three months.

One of those casualties was Darrell Griffin, felled by a sniper's bullet on March 21, 2007, while patrolling in Sadr City. He was fatally shot while standing in the hatch of a Stryker armored vehicle.
I interviewed him on March 3, 10 days before his 36th birthday, at a forward operating base near the town of Iskandariyah, 35 miles south of the city where he was killed. The desert sun was bright, and he wore a pair of dark glasses, which covered his eyes but couldn't conceal a spasmodic muscle tic in his face. He was quite self-conscious about the tic, he confessed, but shrugged it off. "That's what happens after two combat tours in Iraq." We talked about a recent battle and about his collection of digital photographs chronicling his two tours in Iraq. He'd seen things, he said, that he could never tell his wife or family on the phone.

Sergeant Griffin was well read (especially in philosophy), and he was an accomplished writer. The article has a number of searing accounts of his tours of duty in Iraq -- too much to quote in a blog post (and mine are usually long) -- but the following passage is especially moving, and indicative of warrior Griffin's humanity. Griffin's platoon was conducting door-to-door search raids for the enemy, when they entered the home of a family that shared the last name of some of the insurgents of interest:

I noticed the mother attempting to breast feed her little baby and yet the baby continued to cry. [The interpreter] who is a certified and well educated doctor of internal medicine educated in Iraq, told me that the mother, because she was very frightened by our presence, was not able to breast feed her baby because the glands in the breast close up due to sympathetic responses to fear and stressful situations. I then tried to reassure the mother by allowing her to leave the room and attain some privacy so that she could relax and feed her child. I felt something that had been brooding under the attained callousness of my heart for some time.

My heart finally broke for the Iraqi people. I wanted to just sit down and cry while saying I'm so, so sorry for what we had done. I had the acute sense that we had failed these people. It was at this time, and after an entire year of being deployed and well into the next deployment that I realized something. We burst into homes, frighten the hell out of families, and destroy their homes looking for an elusive enemy. We do this out of fear of the unseen and attempt to compensate for our inability to capture insurgents by swatting mosquitoes with a sledge-hammer in glass houses.
Read the whole story. Earlier e-mails Griffin sent home recount tales of heroism, as when he rescued his fellow troops -- beseiged by enemy fire -- during one of the skirmishes in the Battle for Tal Afar in 2005. He received "a Bronze Star with V for valor for saving the lives of three American and two Iraqi soldiers after an ied attack." Griffin had many doubts while in-theater, but he ultimately returned to his faith in God as the source of the good of his mission. After his death by sniper fire, March 21st of this year, his body was returned home to California, where he lies at rest at the National Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Griffin's wife, Diana, didn't say much at his funeral, though she did honor him by noting:

"Today, Darrell has come home on his shield."
I can't put into words my feelings for this man and his family. His record of service and sacrifice is a prideful thing, and untold soldiers' stories like Griffin's are undoubtedly abundant. The Los Angeles Times usually publishes the combat obituaries every weekend, and I try to read as many as I can. Some of the troopers' heroics are more famous than others -- like the life and death of U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Mark Daily, who was killed in Iraq in January 2007 -- but all of these men and women have demonstrated the utmost distinction in the service of their country.

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