June 2012: William W. Griffen Jr. '73
Colonel William W. Griffen Jr. ’73 is retired from the United States Marines after 26 years of service. A trained carrier aviator, he served in six operational fighter and infantry tours around the globe and flew 4,000 hours in naval aircraft, principally the FA-18. He commanded Marines at the squadron and group levels.
“My decision to serve gelled at Harvard, but seeds were planted earlier. I admired many Marines, including Blair Torrey at Hotchkiss whose dedication everyone admired.” Griffen was graduated from Harvard in 1977 with an A.B. in Classical Greek. “I was unsure of my future but the military intrigued me. Homer, read with Allan Hoey at Hotchkiss, those who served in World War II, and U.S. Army General George Marshall were all inspiration. George Will’s column in 1995 describing the Marine Corps as ‘THE counter culture’ best describes my attraction to the Marine Corps.”
“In early squadron tours there is a feeding frenzy for flight time; years are spent developing proficiency, and advanced flying skills are perishable. Those selected to teach are lucky and work hard to make their luck.” Griffen served as a weapons and tactics instructor and as a Topgun adversary instructor, training Navy and Marine Corps aircrew in all aspects of strike-fighter aircraft employment, and teaching adversary capabilities, tactics, and optimal use of aircraft weapons systems.
Six operational tours were divided between Marine expeditionary and Navy carrier deployments. In 1982 Griffen flew the Marine A-4M in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, then went on a land-based tour in exchange with the Navy, flying the A-7E. Thereafter, until 1990, he deployed from the Atlantic on the Navy’s oldest operational carrier, USS Coral Sea, flying new Marine FA-18As over the Mediterranean and across the Arabian Gulf.
These years were followed by 18 months as the air officer for 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines. Deployed in 1991 to northwest Iraq where Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi borders intersect, the battalion spearheaded NATO Operation Provide Comfort, creating a protective cordon for Kurds fleeing Iraqi military reprisals after Desert Storm. “It was rewarding to see Kurdish families feeling safe enough to return home and resume their lives after having fled into the snow-covered mountains of Turkey.” Griffen’s infantry tour was followed by four years and two successive deployments to the Adriatic, flying FA-18Cs from one of the newest Navy carriers, USS Roosevelt, supporting NATO efforts to stabilize the Balkans.
“I studied Greek, Latin, and German at Hotchkiss with superb instructors. Allan Hoey remains the most inspiring teacher of my life. Having read so much in the classics about seagoing gave perspective to sailing and flying the shores of the Mediterranean.” With that language background, Griffen welcomed the opportunity in 1996 to attend the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for six months of intensive French to prepare for 18 months in Paris at the Collège Interarmées de défense at Ecole Militaire, the education center for senior French officers. “The intensive study in Monterey proved well worth the effort. Invitations to family and attaché dinners provided hospitality and friendships, and I learned far more at dining tables than in academic lectures.” The Paris interlude was a welcome complement to Griffen’s previous ten years largely at sea. “I was one of 130 foreigners from 90 countries in a class with twice that number of French officers. The United States and our military was a constant subject of stimulating debate.”
After commanding an FA-18 squadron for two years and deploying again throughout the southeastern Pacific, Griffen was selected to represent the Marine Corps as a national security fellow at Harvard, earning a master’s of public administration at the Kennedy School of Government. “That fall was the year of the 9/11 attacks, and spring 2002 was the 25th anniversary of my college graduation. It was a busy year to be representing the military in Cambridge; articulating the challenges of mastering violence was instructive.”
While commanding the Marine aircraft group responsible for FA-18 training, Griffen was drafted to serve as battle captain of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing during the first months of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The battle staff included Marine, Navy, Air Force, and Army units as well as allied components, operating in the Marine zone of the initial assault. The synergistic surge of these forces toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 21 days.
Asked what he most valued in his assignments, Griffen notes, “I enjoyed the teamwork. An intangible spirit transforms individual sacrifice into a greater sense of accomplishment; the resulting goodwill far outlasts the challenge.” Of overseas deployments he says, “The toughest part is being constantly on the move -- fun when you are young, but more challenging as you mature. Separation can be particularly hard on families.”
Griffen’s decorations include the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star medals for performance in Iraqi Freedom, a Meritorious Service Medal, two Air medals, Navy and Marine Corps commendation medals, one with combat V for service in Bosnia, an Army commendation medal for work in Northern Iraq, a NATO medal earned in the Balkans, and eight sea service deployment ribbon awards. Asked which he values most, he replies, “I guess I am fondest of the sea service deployment ribbon. You don’t do anything extraordinary to earn that, but the stars on that ribbon enumerate subsequent awards. That measures time in the operating forces. Marines do value that.”
Of Hotchkiss Griffen says, “I share many fond memories, but the greatest privilege was learning from the example and commitment of the faculty. In retrospect, it is not the facilities I remember, but the people. Working with other people is what I also liked about the military. I would encourage students to test horizons. Military service provides great opportunity to travel, lead, and learn; it needn’t be a life-long career.” He relates a statistic recounted this year by Navy Secretary Mabus: “163 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are former Marines, more of them having enlisted than having served as commissioned officers. When you consider that less than one percent of Americans served in the military in the last decade, understanding the causes of that ratio challenges you to think.”