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Dad followed dead son's footsteps among his fellow soldiers in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- Staff Sgt. Darrell "Skip" Griffin Jr. wanted to give Americans a close-up view of his two tours of duty in Iraq, to see the blood and the grit in the aftermath of an attack on a convoy, to feel his anxiety in watching the lives of ordinary Iraqis fall apart in the crossfire between sectarian killers and the soldiers who hunted them.

His plans to write a book with his father, Darrell Griffin Sr., were cut short by a sniper's bullet in Baghdad on March 21, 2007.

Darrell Griffin Sr. wouldn't let go of their project. He gathered Skip's e-mails, journals and photographs to piece together the book.

When that wasn't enough, he arranged to visit Skip's company in Baghdad, an unprecedented "embed" for a 55-year-old father of a fallen soldier.

In interviews with soldiers, Griffin reconstructed his son's death and learned about Skip's role as his company's resident philosopher, a self-educated soldier who readily put himself in harm's way and held discussion "pits" to relieve his fellow soldiers' stress.

Griffin published "Last Journey: A Father and Son in Wartime" this summer.

In it, he traces his roots as a 16-year-old dad in Stockton, showing Skip grow from a rebellious 12-year-old debating about Plato in Turlock to a Los Angeles emergency medical technician who joined the Army out of a desire to live up to his own values.

Griffin is in the midst of a tour supporting the book, stopping in Stockton on Thursday. He spoke with McClatchy Newspapers this week about the book that he says "Skip was born to write."

Q: Darrell's e-mails to you were exceptionally detailed. What was it like as a father to receive such intense descriptions?

A: I fully expected his e-mails to be like that because our conversations were always like that. He did tell me everything, but he would underplay it sometimes because he didn't like to brag. When I went to Iraq and I talked to soldiers, I realized, "My God, my son was a super soldier."

He asked me to pray for him every time I talked to him. It troubles you, but you get more troubled when they stopped coming.

Q: Some of Skip's most moving e-mails in the book are ones in which he describes average Iraqis becoming the war's unintended victims -- losing their homes, jobs and families. How did you see that awareness develop?

A: That's one reason he wanted to go back. He didn't feel complete yet. He did feel the Iraqi people got caught in the middle and they often got forgotten. One term that drove him crazy was "collateral damage," because it desensitizes people. Collateral damage is people.

Q: How did your thoughts about the war in Iraq change over time?

A: Skip and I were pretty much in agreement that it was inevitable because of how often radical Islam has attacked the U.S. But was that the right place and the right time to do it?

Once you get there, you just can't walk away. But was this the right way to do it? Is it necessary that 4,000 soldiers died there?

Q: How did the soldiers in Skip's company receive you?

A: There was some apprehension, because my son was the only soldier who was killed in the company at that time. There was some apprehension to talk to me among soldiers who were in the vehicle when my son was shot. I realized at the time it would be awkward. They understood. You could feel they're hurt, too, by my son's death.

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from other parents who've lost sons and daughters in Iraq?

A: There's no such thing as closure, that's the main thing I've been asked. There is no such thing. I could just imagine sitting here talking to Skip. I have his books looking at me, I can just imagine him.

The main thing is when we look at these issues, before we dedicate troops to a war, let's look at all angles instead of just sending them over there and saying hostilities are over as President Bush did, because the harder part is still to come.

Q: You described a vivid visit from Skip at the base outside of Baghdad where you embedded, and you wrote that you had conversations with him as you wrote the book. Do you still feel that connection?

A: I feel a connection, but it's like he knew when I really needed him. There were times when I felt like I was going to break apart when I wrote the book. It took almost two years doing this, and if I hadn't felt his presence, I don't think I could've written it. I still feel him all the time.

When I was in Iraq, he did actually appear to me. I never expected that to happen, but when I did, I felt it was meant to be.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton is on a two-month assignment in Iraq for McClatchy Newspapers.

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