To his fellow Green Berets, Sgt. 1st Class James Grissom had a wildcard personality, keeping his friends guessing about his next practical joke while he pursued his quest for perfection as an elite Special Operator.
That combination inspired the men around him to remember why they chose some of the Army’s hardest work as members of the Special Forces.
“He reminded us that we were doing our dream jobs; we were Green Berets,” his friend, Sgt. First Class Gino Bellermino, said Wednesday at a Joint Base Lewis-McChord memorial.
Grissom, 31, died on March 21 at a military hospital in Germany from gunfire wounds he suffered that week in Afghanistan.
His family honored him last month at a funeral in his hometown of Hayward, Calif., that drew more than 500 mourners, including alumni from his high school choir. Next week, he is to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Wednesday’s memorial drew hundreds of the base’s Special Forces soldiers to an Army chapel at the base south of Tacoma. Some stood two-abreast between pews because they could not find seats. Others watched the service on television screens in overflow rooms.
Grissom is survived by his parents and wife, Angela. They caressed his dog tags as they left the Army chapel.
“He was one of the best among us,” Bellermino said.
The death marked the 20th fatal casualty for the 1st Special Forces Group since Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman died in Afghanistan in January 2002, becoming America’s first combat casualty of the now 12-year-old war.
Grissom’s friends indulged in some of their favorite stories about his quirky personality.
He would notice if someone even slightly moved an item on his desk or in his locker, and he’d immediately start looking for the culprit. But he was just as likely to stuff surprises in his commanding officer’s boots, said Capt. Jae Kim.
One day, Grissom decided he needed to work out his calves in the gym. It was unusual because he wasn’t usually a soldier who’d spend all day in the weight room. The next day he was so sore he had to walk on his tiptoes, making for a ridiculous scene as he and Bellermino drove to a training exercise.
“We couldn’t stop laughing,” Bellermino said. “James couldn’t stop laughing.”
Sgt. 1st Class Dave Hooker remembered Grissom crashing a scene at their combat outpost in Afghanistan where military engineers had cordoned off an area that they suspected contained dangerous ordnance.
Grissom ducked through the caution tape and found what looked like a large mortar round. He picked it up and pretended to drop it in front of the engineers.
They fled for their lives.
He knew the round was a safe training device and no one was in danger.
Grissom tried the trick again on Hooker, who would not blink when Grissom stumbled toward him and dropped the round. Hooker just laughed at his friend’s antics.
“You had a completely different reaction than the engineers next door,” Grissom deadpanned to Hooker.
Grissom also stood out as a generous and thoughtful friend. He’d lend a sympathetic ear to Hooker at times. Bellermino remembered Grissom persistently volunteering to help others with assignments.
Kim said Grissom was the first friendly face he saw as he prepared for a medical evacuation for wounds he suffered in Afghanistan.
Kim choked up as he recalled Grissom carefully packing clothes, snacks and the officer’s combat gear for the evacuation flight.
“That’s just the type of man he was,” Kim said.
Grissom joined the Army in 2003 after earning an associate degree from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He steered a course straight to the Green Berets and served in Lewis-McChord’s 1st Special Forces Group since 2005.
He had deployed five times to combat zones.