E-Mails Reveal a Fallen Soldier's Story
His rifle stock had a sticker of a white skull, and on his helmet written in black Magic Marker was the phrase "Malleus Dei," the Latin phrase meaning God's hammer. During his first tour with a different infantry unit, it was John Calvin's motto "Post Tenebras Lux"after darkness, light. As he fiddled with all his equipment, he talked about the upcoming missionhow it was likely to be routine, how much things in Iraq had changed since his first deployment, and how the folks back home simply couldn't understand the chaos and carnage that soldiers see on a daily basis.
Embedded with Griffin's unit from the last days of February into early March, I met many of the soldiers in Charger Company. Griffin was a veteran in the unit and more than willing to chat about all he had seen. We mostly talked about a fight near the city of Najaf just a few weeks earlier. Assigned to recover the wreckage of a downed Apache helicopter and the remains of the two pilots, the 2-3 stumbled across what the Army called a Shiite doomsday cult known as the Heaven's Army, which had amassed hundreds of fighters and hundreds of civilians in a compound on the outskirts of town. The 2-3 dug in and called in airstrikes against the buildings, a bombardment that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
The men spoke often about Najaf because memories of the engagement were still disturbingly fresh in their minds. Hundreds had been killed or maimed, including women and children. The 2-3 didn't lose a man. "Not even a sprained ankle," said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, the American commander of ground forces at the scene. But several men were still having nightmaresa 19-year-old medic had dreams of treating a child with a missing limb. "And I have lots of photographs of what happened," Griffin offered that evening. "You should sit down and have a look at them." So we sat on his cot, and he began narrating.
There were hundreds of pictures, documenting his two tours with the Army's new Stryker brigadescrack units equipped with the newest vehicles and assigned to some of the toughest missions. We made it through only a few dozen pictures of the battle of Najaf and its bloody aftermath before it was time to go out on the raid, but we agreed to pick up it up again the next day.
The raid was unremarkable. Griffin and his unit failed to nab their target, and the platoonwith a reporter and photographer in towspent a few hours chasing five men who had fled the scene across open farm fields. Crunching through those fields, Griffin and I began talking about philosophy and politics and famous thinkers. He hadn't been to college, but he read widely and spoke with a remarkable clarity and urgency about what he had seen. The next afternoon, Griffin again opened his laptop. "I'd like you to copy these pictures and make sure that people see them," he told me. So I plugged my iPod into his computer and began downloading several gigabytes' worth of folders with titles like "SECOND DEPLOYMENT," "ELECTIONS," "TAL AFAR DEATH PICS," and "CLOSE CALLS."