Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe took his guys into combat and brought them all back—not unmarked, but they didn’t lose anybody either. The way they talked about it later, they fought off God knows how many repeated attacks, did a lot of killing during a long night and endless day and night again when al-Qaida was trying to kill them with mortars and sniper fire in that icy windblown wadi up in the mountains, an eternity when their throats went dry and their limbs stiffened and their blood seeped into the dirt and the light and hope faded into the cold hours. What kept them going was the feeling that, goddammit, they weren’t going to be put down by anybody. That was 1/87. Grippe’s battalion. Sheffer and Odom and Bailey and a couple hundred others. “This is what we’ve been waiting for,” Grippe had told them the night before as they hopped up and down in their heavy gear, explosive as popcorn in their adrenaline rush. On the helicopter ramp beside them the choppers plugged into auxiliary power units and started their dread, intoxicating whine and then the thwack thwack thwack of blades clawing air, unseen in the dark but stirring the men into a frenzy, ready to take them in. They were going into Landing Zone Ginger, a spot on the map that staff officers later traced with their fingers, marking the enemy positions surrounding it and wincing silently, Jesus!
“Do not lower your guard up there no matter how miserable you are. America’s watching,” Grippe had said. “You either prevail or you fail,” which sounded harsh until they got up there, tumbling out the back of the trembling choppers into pitch dark and pumping desperately uphill with the rounds already coming in and guys steadying up, returning careful fire, others going down already, shiny with icy sweat and warm sticky blood, and they saw what he was saying. Some even said it to themselves: You might not make it back. You could frickin’ die up here.
Grippe, a 39-year-old from Utica, N.Y., is a big reason they did come back. He’d say they’re good kids, brave and disciplined, well trained and determined. All true. But he held them together, and together they fought, hard and successfully.
There he was, a big, wide galumph of a guy, his bearlike frame lumbering from one cluster of troopers to another, dropping off hope, confidence, ammo, intravenous tubes. Keeping their return fire accurate and hot. Sliding in beside a red-bandaged trooper who was breathing with small grunts to hold the pain. How ya doin,’ Grippe would say with a gentle squeeze on the arm and that reassuring grin, like a jack-o’-lantern. More rounds falling, each one a sigh and a hot fireball-concussion, and another sigh and guys sucking in their stomachs and pressing harder into the ground and concussion and concussion and red-hot shrapnel rattling and scuttling and whanging off rocks, then guys yelling hoarsely, a sniper up there somewhere, the bullets snapping and squeaking, sergeants yelling to keep up the fire! And in the sleet of metal fragments they saw Grippe suddenly go down too, damn, the medic scrambling with his tubes and needles. But OK, Grippe’s OK, he was gonna be OK, and so were they all.
Two days later, a patched-up Grippe limps out to the helicopter ramp
to watch another company head in as reinforcements, back into LZ Ginger,
dozens of guys combat-loaded, weighed down up with rifles and machine guns,
tripods, gloves, medical kits, boxes of linked ammo, anti-tank missile
launchers and radios, and Grippe, beaming and proud and worried as a new
papa, has a back-pat or arm-punch for each one. Go get ‘em, how ya doin’,
good luck, trooper, and now each guy wears a smile. Hey—that’s Sarnt Major,
come out to see us! Pleased, they trundle on out to the waiting helos,
silhouetted against the soft rose of a setting sun, Old Glory flying from
a makeshift flagstaff. America’s kids, going to war. “Helluva stirring
sight,” somebody remarks. “Don’t get me started,” says Grippe, suddenly
turning away, and damn if his eyes aren’t brimming over.