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Father finishing book by son killed in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Darrell Griffin Sr. has gotten down to work on his final collaboration with his son and namesake.

The book taking shape beneath his hands is a compendium. It will blend an account of a father’s melancholy journey to Iraq with the dire experiences and searching meditations of a son, the latter written down by Darrell Griffin Jr. before a Sadr City sniper’s bullet pierced the back of his head in March.

Darrell Jr. was an Army infantry staff sergeant, 6 feet 2 inches of muscled warrior. Married, with no children, he’d been an emergency medical technician in Compton before finding his life’s work as a soldier.

Although he had eschewed college, he was an avid reader, the owner of -- among hundreds of other books on religion and philosophy -- a 23-volume set of the works of John Calvin.

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Known in the family as Skip, he was strong-willed and tough-minded from an early age.

“He was always stretching the limits of authority, always testing the environment,” his father recalled. “I didn’t win an argument with him after he was about 8 years old.”

Darrell Jr.'s death at age 36 left his father grieving and feeling helpless. It was Darrell Sr., a small-business consultant in Sherman Oaks, who had suggested that his son keep a journal in Iraq, and who had promised to help him put it in book form when he returned from his second combat tour.

“I thought it would be a great thing for a father and son to do, and at the same time it might help him keep his sanity while he was going through all that over there,” Griffin said.

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So, hoping to somehow soften his anguish, Griffin resolved to go to Iraq to get a sense of the final phase of his son’s life, to speak with the men he died fighting alongside and “to feel a little of the danger.”

He reasoned that it would help him write the book, which would be the fulfillment of a promise, a kind of gift to his son.

Because of his writerly intentions, Griffin obtained permission from the military to travel to the war zone as an embedded journalist. His cause was helped by the fact that three weeks after his son’s death, Darrell Jr. had been the subject of a long cover story in U.S. News and World Report. His name was familiar to senior officers, including Gen. David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

Apprised of Darrell Griffin Sr.'s visit in advance, some of his son’s former comrades in Charger Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, felt a certain unease.

“There was a small bit of hesitancy on the front end when Mr. Griffin and I first corresponded,” said Capt. Steve Phillips, who had been Darrell Jr.'s company commander and was the last person to lay a comforting hand on him before he died. “Obviously, you never know the initial reaction someone would have when he first shows up and meets the people his son spent the last moments of his life with.”

Griffin set out for Iraq, via Kuwait, on Sept. 1. Caught up in military bureaucratic procedure, and having to wait for space on military aircraft, it took him five days to get to Baghdad.

Griffin is a conservative and supporter of the military. As a young man, however, he was not enthusiastic about the Vietnam War, and considered going to Canada to avoid the draft before signing on with a California Army National Guard unit based in Stockton, where he was raised. (He served for six years.)

Griffin’s close-range education in the realities of the Iraq conflict began on the flight to Baghdad. Clad in body armor and wearing a Kevlar helmet, he found himself sitting next to a private contract employee who was hired to train Iraqi police officers.

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“He was 67 years old and so overweight he couldn’t buckle his body armor,” Griffin recalled. “He had no academic background, and had been a low-ranking Border Patrol agent for seven years, over 10 years ago. I remember him commenting to me that he was going to ‘ride this gravy train for four years,’ at $130,000 a year. And he was there to train the police that are supposed to take over from our boys?”

Griffin finally made it, courtesy of a low-flying Black Hawk helicopter, to the forward operating base where his son’s unit was quartered.

For the next three days and four nights, he tasted the Army life his son relished. He ate in the mess hall where his son had. He shopped at the PX. He used the long-distance telephones on which his son had called home.

He also interviewed the men in Darrell Jr.'s company, with a particular interest in the details of his son’s last day.

“I did have a little anxiety about meeting him,” said 1st Lt. Gregory Weber, who had been Darrell Jr.'s platoon leader.

He had been in the Stryker combat vehicle and heard the sniper’s bullet strike Darrell Jr., who was standing exposed in the armored truck’s open rear hatch.

“Losing a squad leader and a fellow soldier -- it’s a little hard to confront that man’s father,” Weber said.

As soon as he met Griffin, however, Weber’s anxiety evaporated. “I felt it was wonderful that Sgt. Griffin’s father was honoring him and completing something his son was unable to, and I would have the hope my father would do the same thing, which I believe he would.”

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Sgt. 1st Class Samuel Armer, a close friend of Darrell Jr., said it took him only a few minutes to feel comfortable with Griffin, “because he kind of reminded me of his son. There is somewhat of a physical resemblance, also a kind of emotional similarity -- the way they discuss things. Darrell Jr. and I, we discussed a lot of philosophy and stuff, and Darrell Sr. talked about how the two of them would stay up long nights and discuss these things.”

Some of the soldiers saw in Griffin aspects of their own fathers, and became, accordingly, protective.

Griffin had hoped to accompany troops on a combat operation and perhaps visit the site where Darrell Jr. was shot. His son’s unit, however, was standing down in anticipation of departing Iraq. Another unit had taken over operations.

Griffin could have gone on a mission with the new unit, but Phillips and others in Darrell Jr.'s company advised against it.

“To the new unit, he would be an outsider,” Phillips said. “They’d be people who really had no real interest in why he would be out on patrol with them. While it would have been of sentimental value to Mr. Griffin, it didn’t seem to me to be worth the risk.”

Griffin said he decided “the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.”

“You listen to the experts,” he said. “Also I didn’t want the guys to have to take care of this 55-year-old, overweight guy.”

Since Griffin returned home, life has been knitting its way around the loss of his son. He met with Petraeus when the general was in Washington to testify before Congress. One of Griffin’s grandsons has gone to Iraq as a Navy medical corpsman.

Film rights to his son’s story have been sold. A documentary, including the videotaped interviews Griffin conducted in Iraq, also is in the works. (In accordance with the wishes of Darrell Jr.'s widow, Diana, Griffin said, he has taken care that the films not be used to oppose or support the war.)

Griffin recently traveled to Ft. Lewis, Wash., where he attended the ceremony marking the homecoming of his son’s unit, and conducted more interviews.

Meanwhile, Alex Kingsbury, the writer of the U.S. News and World Report profile, is helping Griffin find a publisher for the nascent book, for which Petraeus has agreed to write a foreword, Griffin said.

Darrell Jr.'s posthumous contributions to the book consist of graphic depictions of battle carnage, civilian casualties and instances in which he killed others. They also include such soul-searchings as these:

“This world with its complexity is only an imperfect analogy of the eternal abyss from which it comes. . . Is there truly a telos (an ultimate reason) to history or are we merely spinning out of control in an ambivalent universe?. . . 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. . . .”

Such metaphysical wonderings characterized the father-son dialogue through the years, Griffin said.

“Neither of us liked sports, so the thing we shared was reading and talking,” he said. “We’d get a couple of bottles of merlot and talk philosophy late into the night. I used to ask him in advance which philosophers we were going to discuss so I could read up. I don’t think you’ll find a father and son closer than we were. He was the smartest man I ever met. I’m not writing this book, we’re writing it.”

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james.ricci@latimes.com


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