TERRE HAUTE — It was earlier this month when U.S. Army Sgt. Dale Griffin, 29, last spoke with his mother on the telephone. He was calling from Afghanistan where he was serving as part of operation Enduring Freedom. It was not an ordinary call.
“He wanted to be sure that we knew how much he loved us,” said Dale’s mother, Dona, speaking in her southern Vigo County home Friday afternoon. In that conversation, Dale asked his mother why people always seem to have to lose something or someone before they realized what they had lost.
“He said he was passing up a free vacation to Australia” to come home for Thanksgiving, Dona said. “That’s how much I love you,” he said.
Then, on Tuesday, Dale Griffin and six other U.S. Army soldiers on patrol in southern Afghanistan were killed by a roadside bomb. An Afghan civilian was also killed in the blast.
Several hours later, just before midnight, Gene and Dona Griffin learned their son’s fate. There was a knock on the door of their home and two uniformed members of the U.S. military very compassionately broke the terrible news.
Sgt. Griffin’s body was flown from Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and arrived early Thursday morning. Gene and Dona flew at the Army’s expense to Philadelphia late Wednesday and were driven to the base where they arrived around 12:30 a.m.
Prior to leaving for Dover, the Army gave the Griffin’s a document asking how much media coverage of their son’s arrival in the United States they would allow. They checked the third option, which was for essentially full media access.
“We wanted more people to know” how much each soldier had sacrificed, Dona Griffin said Friday. They had no idea how much that decision would affect their lives for the next 48 hours.
After arriving on the east coast, the Griffin’s received a telephone call to verify their decision regarding media coverage. They confirmed the decision and were then informed the President of the United States would be at the base for the transfer. Within a few hours, the Griffins met President Barack Obama and were able to speak with him briefly. Later, the president stood at attention as the caskets of all of the servicemen were carried from a military transport plane.
“I was glad to see that he made that choice,” Dona Griffin said of President Obama’s decision to meet with grieving families and stand at attention on a very cold and windy night at the air base.
In addition to helping people understand the sacrifice of American troops serving overseas, the Griffins also wanted to create relationships with and show support for – other families of lost servicemen and women, they said.
Dale had “spoken very highly” of the men he was serving with in Afghanistan, Gene said. All seven members of Dale’s unit were killed in Tuesday’s blast.
Dale Griffin, by all accounts, was an incredibly strong and athletic young man. He was the runner up in his weight class in the Indiana high school wrestling championships in 1999, his senior year at Terre Haute South Vigo. More recently, he defeated every other member of the Fort Lewis, Washington, Army post in a mixed martial arts competition.
But Dale was also emotionally strong, always looking for ways to improve himself, his parents said. Through Army language school, he had recently become fairly fluent in Arabic and was learning a third language when he was killed. Once, when Dale was younger, Gene and Dona discovered a list he had written of things about himself he wanted to improve. Another time, after losing – based on a likely officiating error – an important sporting event, he handled the incident with dignity, Gene said. “That’s when we came up with the expression, ‘a trophy does not a champion make.’”
While serving in Afghanistan, Dale thought U.S. efforts were making a difference, he told his parents. He loved the Afghan people, especially children. He would ask his mother to send him crayons and paper that he could give to young Afghan children, Dona said. Dale was planning to seek a master’s degree and a law degree after leaving the Army, in which he served for just under four years.
“He was quite a young man,” Gene Griffin said, fighting back strong emotion Thursday at their home, the house in which Dale and his two brothers and sisters grew up as a closely knitted family.
“He wanted to make a difference,” Gene said. “And that’s what he’s doing.”
Funeral services for U.S. Army Sgt. Dale Russel Griffin are pending.
Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.