Casualties of victory

The Griffin family talk about their suspicions about the media, devotion to the military and why their son Kyle did not die in vain.

Published August 21, 2003 4:10PM (EDT)

Just past midnight on May 30, Ron Griffin stepped outside his ranch-style home to light up a cigar. As production supervisor at a cheese factory, Ron had become accustomed to late hours. His wife, Robin, was already asleep, as were the couple's two teenagers. The Griffins' eldest son, 20-year-old Kyle, a specialist in the Army, had shipped off to Iraq in February, so Ron had the night sky to himself. Not until the family's 4-year-old yellow Lab, Bailey, began to bark from inside the house, did Ron notice two shadowy forms coming toward him across the lawn.

"Are you Mr. Griffin?" one of the men asked. Suddenly realizing the two men standing before him were dressed in Army uniforms -- and that his family's worst fear was about to become a reality -- Ron blurted out, "No." Running into the family's living room, he dropped to his knees and yelled to his wife. "Robin! I need you! Come here!"

Robin emerged from the bedroom to find an Army chaplain and notification officer standing in her kitchen. In soft tones, they explained that the Griffin's son, Kyle, had been killed the morning before in a car accident in Iraq.

Unwilling to believe the news, Robin and Ron told the officers they didn't have the right house. They said when Kyle went on reconnaissance missions in the field, he never wore his dog tags, that someone must have mistakenly identified the body.

It took nearly 15 minutes for the officers to finally convince the Griffins that there had been no mistake. They brought out every official paper they had, explaining that Kyle's sergeant had identified the body himself.

"We were in total shock," says Ron. "It hadn't even hit us yet that Kyle was dead and already, we felt completely, totally lost."

Since President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq officially over on May 1, 132 American soldiers have died. Unlike some families of fallen soldiers, who struggle with feelings of anger toward their government and confusion over the nature of the war, the Griffin family has no doubts that Kyle died for a good and just cause. They fully support President Bush and the war in Iraq. And though they are suffering a profound loss, they've sought comfort from their community and from the U.S. military.

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Even before one enters the Griffins' suburban home in northern New Jersey, it is clear that this is a fiercely patriotic family. A yellow ribbon is tied into a neat bow around a tree on the lawn. A bumper sticker on a car in the driveway reads, "I'm proud my son is serving in the military." Another car, which used to belong to Kyle, boasts an "Airborne" sticker and infantry insignia. Even Bailey, the Griffins' dog, trots proudly through the house with a camouflage bandana knotted around his neck.

But while the Griffins are very comfortable displaying their pride in the United States military, they are not so comfortable talking about it. In the nearly three months since Kyle was killed, they have only granted a few interviews to the media. A self-proclaimed "cable news freak," Ron has a strong distrust of journalists. "With news reporters' instant deadlines, they often can't -- or won't -- take the time to get beyond what's superficial and go into the depth that a story requires," he explains.

Because of that, Ron worries that his family's words will be somehow twisted in print or edited on-camera to convey a simmering resentment against the U.S. military or a loss of faith in the war in Iraq -- sentiments that do not at all reflect his family's feelings. When the Griffins did agree to talk to Salon, it was only on the condition that an Army Public Affairs representative be present during the interview. Several times during the course of our three-hour visit, the public affairs representative politely interrupted the conversation and asked the Griffins to reconsider what they had said. Not surprisingly, more than a few things -- most having to do with politics -- were struck from the record.

"I'm a political person," explains Ron, "but [Kyle's death] isn't political. The only politics of this story is everybody [in our community] coming together."

Ron is a silver-haired teddy bear of a man with a thick Bronx accent, a booming voice, and a strong handshake. His wife, Robin, is 50, but could easily pass for much younger, thanks to her toe ring, ankle bracelet and deep summer tan. She looks more like a new mother than one who has just lost a 20-year-old son.

Despite their suspicions about the media, the Griffins are unfailingly gracious to a reporter in their home. Robin jumps up from her armchair in the cozy, apricot-walled living room, offering coffee, glasses of water, bagels and cream cheese. Ron greets the Army representative with a bear hug, and even stretches his arms out to a reporter when she leaves. He proudly admits he cajoled Kyle -- who was famously non-demonstrative -- to not only hug him, but kiss him on the lips the last time they visited him on base at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"Kyle was not a warm and fuzzy kid," Robin explains. "There were a lot of days you loved him, but you didn't like him. But he grew up to be a very warm and fuzzy man."

From the time Kyle was a young boy, he knew he wanted to be a soldier. His parents have no idea where his passion originated. Although Ron spent a year in Vietnam, he never talked about his tour of duty or suffered flashbacks; the Griffin's home never teemed with guns or ammo. Kyle's interest seemed to be innate. By the age of 4, he insisted on attending his younger brother's baptism decked out in camouflage shorts and bandana, a toy gun slung around his hip. He kept an arsenal of toy guns in the basement -- many with pretend sights, or eyepieces, carefully duct-taped on -- with which he and the neighborhood kids used to play "Army." Years later, after reading about "gilly suits" -- garments worn by snipers to blend into their surroundings -- Kyle even decided to make his own, painstakingly dying a swath of burlap he bought from an Army store in Hackensack.

Growing up, Kyle was well-liked, his parents say, but didn't have a circle of close friends. He was bright, but not necessarily a good student; school bored him. "Kyle was a lot like me -- stubborn, quite smart, moody," says Ron. "He always wanted to be outside. He'd rather go on a 50-mile march than do nothing."

On the day he was supposed to take his SATs, Kyle skipped the test and spent the day in the woods instead. What he did there is still a mystery to his parents.

"He was very quiet, and didn't share a lot of things with us," says Robin. "We had to pull it out of him. We would ask, 'Where are you going?' and he'd just say 'OUT.'"

Kyle wanted to join the Marines as soon as he graduated from high school in 2000. Robin felt he was too young and encouraged him to try college first. Reluctantly, he began attending classes at Bergen Community College and working part-time loading and unloading trucks at UPS. His heart wasn't in it, though, and in April 2001, Kyle signed his enlistment papers.

Kyle's 17-year-old brother, Ryan, is neurologically impaired and was unavailable for the interview. But his sister, Blair, eventually emerges from her room and curls up in an armchair near her parents, and brings her knees up to her chest. At 15, she is the spitting image of her brother, although with long, dark hair. Kyle's dog tags dangle from her neck, and she says she only takes them off to go in the swimming pool. She wears shorts and a Hooters T-shirt Kyle bought while stationed last year in Argentina; her expression remains impassive when she talks about her brother, though tears stream down her cheeks. "Joining the Army changed Kyle," she says. "He was finally doing something he liked."

After boot camp and Army Airborne School, Kyle attended a pre-Ranger course in Fort Bragg. He excelled at the two-week class, designed to prepare soldiers for the intensive training required for becoming an Army Ranger, one of the most elite combat soldiers in the world. But even though he was at the top of his class for the first time in his life, he never shared his accomplishments with his family. They only learned of them after his death, from a stream of letters written by his instructors and commanding officers. These letters describe Kyle as "a true Ranger in heart and soul," "a great American, and a super soldier," "someone who approached everything he did with a sense of perfection" and "one of the very best."

Kyle was handpicked to begin Ranger school in the spring -- a 66-day course at Fort Benning, Ga., so physically and mentally grueling that only a small portion of participants ever finish. But at the beginning of the year his unit -- the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion Unit, part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division -- was told they would be shipping out to Iraq. Although disappointed about postponing Ranger school, he seemed eager to go to the Middle East.

He explained to Blair that if he didn't go, it would be like training for softball but never getting to play on the team. For his mother, he equated it with learning to be a surgeon and never getting to operate.

"He said to me, 'Mom, I know my training inside and out,'" Robin remembers. "'Don't worry. I'm coming home.'"

On Feb. 5, just 10 days just after he'd been home for a Super Bowl party, Kyle shipped out to Iraq. The Griffins immediately mailed off care packages of vitamins, Oreos, Powerades, Chapstick and crossword puzzles. Kyle wrote every few weeks and called when he could, although the conversations were usually brief. Once, he told Blair, troops had been lined up for as long as six hours waiting to use the phone.

The last letter the Griffins received from Kyle is dated April 28, but didn't arrive in their mailbox until May 29, the day before the accident. In it, Kyle describes the Iraqi civilians he'd met as "warm and nice," and pronounced his first camel burger "pretty good." He cordially asks if his mother has mastered the new phone system at the doctor's office where she works as a receptionist. In his father's portion of the letter, he confides he's "doing a lot of shit," then goes on to ask if he can find Kyle a specific model of gun to purchase and whether or not the county has a SWAT team -- something Kyle was considering as a career option. "I try not to think about home a lot," he wrote in a flash of introspection, "but it's hard."

The morning after the Griffins received that letter, Kyle and two other troops, including one of his closest friends in the unit, Zachariah Long, were traveling in a three-vehicle convoy between Mosul and Tikrit, Iraq. A rainstorm had begun, and a civilian driving in the other direction swerved to miss a pothole, and skidded into the soldiers' path. While the two Humvees of the convoy veered to miss him, the truck carrying Kyle turned too sharply, rolled over and crashed. All three occupants were killed.

"You win medals, you do all that you can as an infantryman, and then you die in an accident? I had a hard time with that," admits Ron. "But then Zachariah Long's mother told me, 'Zach and Kyle didn't make mistakes. If they had died in combat, then they would have done something wrong.' That changed my whole outlook."

While many families find themselves grieving in a vacuum for the loved ones they've lost, the Griffins have experienced just the opposite -- an outpouring of sympathy that has gone far beyond the occasional casserole and condolence card. (Although there were plenty of both -- hundreds of cards from friends and strangers are displayed prominently in a wicker basket in the Griffins' living room, too heavy now for Robin to lift on her own. And so much food was dropped off for the family, from vast amounts of Chinese takeout to home-cooked lasagnas, that only recently have they had a need to grocery shop for themselves.)

As soon the community of Emerson learned of Kyle's death, the two-square-mile town of only 7,200 people mobilized. Each day brought dozens of people to the Griffins' house. Robin's doctor brought coffee in the morning and vacuumed her living room. A girl Kyle had known in high school began a petition to rename a street after him. A neighbor made a chalk drawing of Kyle that now hangs in the Griffin dining room. Still other friends established the Kyle Griffin Foundation, a scholarship fund; so far, over $23,000 has been raised. And when it came time to pick up Kyle's remains, Emerson's chief of police personally drove the Griffins to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in his 42-foot motor home. On the day that Kyle was buried, Ron's boss closed the factory and paid all his workers so they could attend the service.

Even Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone Russell, the casualty assistance officer assigned to the Griffins' case, gave them a poem he wrote about Kyle after listening to them talk about him. "[The Army] doesn't want you to get too emotionally attached to families, but you can't help it," he says. "This was just something from a soldier to a soldier. I thought it'd help them get some closure."

Ron and Robin are sure it has.

"[All of] this has restored my faith in humanity," Robin says. "We had such an absolute outpouring of love and support. It's lifted us and gotten us through this. Emotionally, we would have been invalids without it."

"People did everything right, they said everything right," says Ron. "Every little kindness -- and there are thousands of stories -- meant so much to us."

Ron is emphatic that he and his family have no bitterness, no anger about their son's death, especially where the war is concerned. "We have nobody to get angry at," he says. "Who do you get mad at?"

Robin is bewildered when people say, "Thank you for giving your son to us." "People are trying to give us kudos because we 'gave' them our son. But we didn't. He wanted to go. He told me, 'Mom, if I die, I die. It's the chance I take.' I don't know where he got his bravery," she says. "I would have run the other way."

The Griffins have always have been "110 percent for the war," Robin says. "We started it, so let's finish it. It'll bite us if we don't. And it's awful. It's unfortunate to have to lose lives. No one knows this better than us."

"Ninety five percent of the soldiers [in Iraq] want to do the best they can do," says Ron. "They love what they do. And that doesn't come through in the media ... I was in Vietnam. I know what it's like when you walk by and a little kid looks up at you in your uniform, carrying your weapon and smiles. American soldiers -- when they do their job, they do it well and they love it. Kyle loved it out there. He wanted to be there and he wanted to do his job."

By Stephanie Booth

Stephanie Booth is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.

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