From Albany to Afghanistan

Posted March 12, 2013 at 6:54 pm

NEWS takes close-up look at local soldier’s experience

Headlines in the newspapers and televised news reports tell daily what our armed forces troops are going through in the effort to train and maintain order in war-torn regions that are fighting the Taliban.

For most – those accounts are another world away and are just that, headlines in the newspapers or accounts told by network news reporters.

But the sacrifices that are being made by the men and women in places like Sperwan Ghar, Afghanistan are real, and families across the nation are being affected as they keep up with loved ones who are stationed and fighting for our freedoms there.

To bring those experiences closer to home for our readers, the Clinton County News recently exchanged several emails with one young soldier from Clinton County – Charlie Griffin, who is currently serving his country in Afghanistan.

This article includes some of his experiences – how he grew up and enjoyed the rural life in Albany and Clinton County, how the Bulldog Battallion and the JROTC program and inparticular one of the program instructors, Master Sgt. John Thomure, influenced his adult life, and what he encounters while on duty in Afghanistan.

From Albany to Afghanistan

Growing up in Albany and Clinton County after moving here to live with his father when he was in the sixth grade, Charlie Griffin wasn’t unlike most young boys in rural Kentucky.

Enjoying the outdoors and with considerable athletic abilities, Griffin came to love his Clinton County home and the freedom to be outdoors enjoying hunting and trail riding or being on the lake with his friends.

Griffin soon turned his athletic abilities toward running, often just running through the woods to clear his mind or think about what he wanted to do with his life and his dream about serving in the armed forces.

Luckily for the free world, young people like Charlie Griffin eventually take their dreams to the next level, joining one of our armed services branches and devoting themselves to protecting the freedoms that many of us often take for granted.

For young Charlie Griffin, his involvement in the Clinton County High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, commonly referred to by the shortened acronym JROTC, eventually took the young man from the classroom to the desserts of Afghanistan.

That’s where Griffin now spends his work days, in a second enlistment stretch with the U.S. Army.

Although it was his goal to join the military even as a young boy growing up and playing in the woods near his home, like many young men his age, he had to wander from his goal to ever realize the direction he truly wanted to head in.

He credits in large part his decision to eventually realize that goal to Master Sgt. John Thomure, one of the instructors of the Clinton County High School JROTC Bulldog Battalion.

Thomure recently forwarded several photos Griffin had emailed him from his Afghan base near Sperwan Ghar, and after a series of emails with the now Sgt. Griffin, the Clinton County News was able to put together this account of just how a young soldier can go from running through the woods of Clinton County, to defending our freedoms against the Taliban forces half a world away.

Griffin is married to the former Dorothy Papinau of Albany, and they have one daughter, Gracie, and are expecting another child this spring.

A Clinton County High School graduate of 2007, he is the son of Jeff Griffin and Claire Griffin and moved to Clinton County to live with his father prior to attending the sixth grade.

According to Thomure, Griffin enlisted in the Army early in 2009, completing his infantry basic and advanced training at Fort Benning, GA, during which time he received awards for highest shooter scores and also for physical fitness scores and was assigned to Fort Lewis, WA before deploying to Iraq for 2009-2010 tour.

Although Griffin himself credits Thomure and his involvement with the JROTC with eventually enlisting with the Army, both acknowledge that for awhile, it looked as if Griffin might abandon his dream of being a soldier.

“Charlie spent three years in JROTC and attained the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. He was a great cadet, but strayed from me his senior year- wouldn’t listen to my advice and left JROTC his senior year,” Thomure told the Clinton County News recently when asked about his former student and now close friend. “When I left here in 2006 and returned to farming, Charlie called me out of the blue from Albany asking me to help him as he wanted to join the service.”

Thomure eventually returned to Clinton County and is now again one of two instructors with the JROTC program here, along with Sgt. Ron Cook.

“He spent a couple of weeks with me and I trained him hard to get him ready. The rest is history as he graduated a honor graduate at Ft. Benning as an Infantryman – not an easy accomplishment as there are on the average in a training company at least 250 other men,” Thomure said. “Now, not a conversation with him goes by that he doesn’t thank me and tell me he wished he would have listened to me years ago.”

Griffin, who has already collected a host of medals, badges and ribbons in his short military career, also speaks with a special fondness of the relationship he has with his former instructor from the Bulldog Battalion.

Griffin said he took up running at an early age, and would often run after school at Mountain View Park just to be outside and to help free up his mind after a day of classes. It was during these afternoon runs at the park where he met Sgt. Thomure, who is fondly referred to by his current and former students as “Sgt. T”.

Griffin credits Thomure as being one of the influences who steered him to become a soldier with the infantry, but he also spoke fondly of another family member who also recognized that he should follow his dream and join the army.

His grandmother, Maxine Griffin, who he affectionately refers to as “Maw Mac” was much more than a grandmother to him he says, saying she was in actuality, more like a best friend.

“My last summer before I started high school, Maw Mac kept pushing for me to be in JROTC and I honestly thought it would be fun but I was too proud to do it at first,” Griffin said. “I went ahead and signed up for it, honestly at first just because Maw Mac ask me to and I would do just about anything besides homework not to let my grandma down.”

While enrolled in the JROTC program, Griffin, who eventually earned the rank of Second Lieutenant, would become involved with several of the program’s offerings, including Raiders, color guard, drill team, rifle team and cross country running.

As for the running, Griffin said he quickly learned that with his 200 pound weight, long-distance running would be much more to his liking than short-distance speed races.

Despite leaving the JROTC program during his senior year of high school, Griffin says he knew that the Army life was still where he wanted, and needed to be. Still, it wasn’t until after a couple of years out of high school and a couple of jobs behind him, that a stop at a traffic light landed him inside an Army recruiting office and eventually overseas to Iraq and now Afghanistan.

“I was out of a job and ended up in Somerset looking for a job on a Monday and while at a red light I was looking around waiting for the light to change and then I looked across the street and there it sat… the answer to my problems – the recruiting station,” Griffin said.

Still, his venture from that decision to join at the Somerset traffic light into the Army recruiting station, wasn’t exactly a non-stop trip either, but also included a side stop along the way.

“I wasn’t in the turning lane so I went on up to the Honda Motorsports and before I knew it I had bought a new dirt bike that I had no way of paying for,”Griffin remembers. “Looking back on it now I think sometimes I bought that bike just so I’d have to join so I could make the payments.”

Griffin’s next stop was at that Army recruiting station, and the rest he says, is modern-day history as far as his Army career goes.

“They tried to get me to be a cook then a truck driver but I knew that there was a position waiting for me and God didn’t put me on this earth to be a cook- I was destined to be in the infantry,” Griffin said.

After completing his basic training as well as a training stint that was geared specifically for his upcoming combat duties in Iraq, Griffin was off to his first overseas stint as a part of the U.S. Army patrols as a member of the force known as Iraqi Freedom.

“I got to B Co. 1-38IN in July then I was in Iraq the first part of September and I would spend a year,” Griffin said. “It wouldn’t be a bad year – we were the last combat unit in Iraq and we would drive from Iraq to Kuwait for what was known as the last combat patrol in Iraq. As soon as we passed the Iraq Kuwait border operation Iraqi Freedom turned into Operation New Dawn.”

With his first tour behind him, Griffin returned home for a brief leave visit, and it would be a visit that would also be a life changing one for the young soldier.

“When I came home there was something missing and while on R&R I went on a few dates with who is now my wife, Dorothy Papineau Griffin,” he said. “We hadn’t told a lot of people but we had planned to get married, I guess some would say the old saying is true, there is such a thing as love at first sight, we were married October 23, 2010.”

The next year, the couple welcomed their first daughter Gracie into their family and they are now expecting a second child.

“I will remember that day for as long as I live, I was overwhelmed, speechless and when I held her for the first time it was like nothing else around mattered anymore,” Griffin remembers.

It was when Griffin was home for the birth of his daughter that he received the news of yet another life changing event, one that came as a complete surprise to everyone.

Having recently re-enlisted for a second term, Griffin was expecting to take his wife and new daughter to the sunny surroundings of Hawaii for his next stint of Army life, when he received the news that for awhile, left him with a sick feeling in his stomach.

“While I was home for the birth of Gracie my paperwork was supposed to be going through for Hawaii,” he said. “When I got back, boy did I have a surprise waiting for me.”

Griffin remembered being congratulated on the birth of Gracie by his fellow soldiers, and realizing from their actions that something just wasn’t right when he was called into the office of his platoon sergeant, who gave him the news of his change of orders from Hawaii – to Afghanistan.

“I walked out and my heart sank. Here I was with a family to take care of and a new baby,” he said. “We had been hearing about all the incidents that had been happening in Afghanistan and I felt lucky to have gotten on orders before the deployment, but now my name was on a new list, a list bound for a place I had never heard of, a place I couldn’t have pointed out to you on a map, a place called Panjwai Afghanistan and if looked up on Wikipedia, is known as the birthplace of the Taliban. You can imagine what my idea of coming here was.”

Before leaving his family, Griffin said he remembers laying awake throughout the entire night, knowing that he would be leaving for his new assignment the next morning, saying goodbye to a young wife and new daughter they had just brought home.

“Morning came fast and I loaded up my bags, helped get Gracie ready and fed, then out the door we went. Standing there saying our last good-byes and waiting for the bus to arrive that would take us to the plane, I was trying my best to hold it together – to be a man I guess you could say – making short eye contact with Dorothy.

“We were both thinking the same thing wishing this was all a dream and would wake up any minute,” Griffin said. “Holding little Gracie and thinking to myself that I was lucky that Gracie was young enough that maybe she wouldn’t recognize that I was gone and when I got back, it would be as if I never left. Earlier that morning Gracie had fallen asleep on my chest, which she rarely ever did and I felt like I had a little angel on my chest so I took a nap too.”

After a few layover days in Alaska, Griffin and his fellow solders were back on a plane headed for their new Afghanistan destination, where they arrived Thanksgiving Day, 2012.

Currently Griffin is a part of an Infantry Division stationed at Sperwan Ghar, a historical location in Afghanistan near a man-made mountain. The location was the subject of a poplar book written in 2006 by Army Major Rusty Bradley entitled Lions of Kandahar.

“It is a very historical place in Afghanistan and we are living in what was a school at one time until the Taliban took over and declared there would be no schools in Panjwai,” Griffin said. The classrooms, which are less than half the size of the ones back home, is where we built bunks and tables out of 2 by 4’s and what wood we could find. There are around four to six men living in each room so its tight, but we make it work.

Griffin also spoke in great detail of the bonds that are established with the fellow soldiers he bunks, eats and goes to battle with – considering them friends or comrades – brothers in arms, more so than as “co-workers.”

“As for my comrades or peers, we have a bond that is unknown in the civilian world and more of a brotherhood,” he said. “At any given moment we would sacrifice our lives for the lives of our brothers without a second thought. That is the way of the infantry brotherhood and we consider ourselves a family, not co-workers.

Griffin noted that throughout the course of a day, his relationships with fellow soldiers can go through several transformations, and despite his relative young age, it can go from a friend to that of a father-figure to a younger soldier, noting that while a age span between 19 and 25 – the group that most of his company falls between, might not seem that great in the civilian world, it’s a big differential in the world of those serving together in our armed forces.

“There are many roles that you play as a soldier – one minute a leader, the next a friend, father figure to younger soldiers,” he said.

Griffin added that while serving in tight quarters, against extreme battleground conditions and away from his family is something he has to deal with every day, there is also the reminder when a comrade is lost to battle that is a situation he has to be ready to face at any given moment.

One of the losses in his combat platoon was that of a close friend, Sgt. David Chambers who died in the line of duty.

“When we lost Sgt. David Chambers, it really brought us together. He was one of the best men I have ever had the privilege to meet in my life,”Griffin said. “There are guys in the military that you meet and they are cool to work with but outside of work you really don’t have a relationship with them, and then there’s the ones that, after you’re both out of the army or on opposite sides of the country, you stay in touch with.

“Sgt. Chambers was that guy. He was truly a best friend to me and a damn good soldier. I would go to him about any advice I was seeking or if I had a question about something and needed quick answers and he will never be forgotten and will be remembered by a lot of men.”

While fighting the Taliban forces in the Afghanistan surroundings certainly isn’t something that anyone hopes happens to them, Griffin did say that having the conveniences of modern communications is something that at least gives him the option of having more contact with both his wife, Dorothy, as well as his immediate family here in Kentucky.

“As far as communication goes with family, we do have phones here that work most of the time and the internet is pretty terrible, but it works some of the time as well,” Griffin said.

Here in Clinton County, that instructor that Griffin spoke so fondly of and referred to as a “mentor”, speaks with the same reverence and respect, but shows an additional level of concern when talking about his former student and now close friend,.

When he talks of Griffin and conversations he’s had with him, his tone more resembles that of a father toward a son who was serving in Afghanistan – relaying a concern he feels about for his well being.

“He is still rough around the edges, but that actually describes most combat soldiers who ever fought for our nation,” Thomure says of Griffin. “He has turned out to be a fine young man but I worry about him often as he is a natural born hero.”

To Charlie Griffin and the rest of the men and women serving our country in this and the other actions the United States is involved in around the world – thank you for your service, and return home safe and sound – and soon.