BAGHDAD - Even Frank Grippe's conversations can be high-speed.
If he sees you, the I Corps command sergeant major will probably give you a signature punch to the arm or the chest. He’ll certainly offer one of his bone-crushing handshakes. He’ll quickly form a nickname for you. Is your last name Cooper? Now you’re Coopster.
You know that catch-all Army word “hooah?” Grippe loves that word.
He’ll want to introduce you to one of his soldiers. High-speed soldiers, he calls them. He’ll tell you he senses victory in Iraq. I Corps’ top enlisted soldier will talk about the highlights of his latest battlefield circulation. He’ll recount trudging through fields with soldiers. He loves soldiers. Especially high-speed soldiers.
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For the past year, Grippe, 47, and the rest of I Corps have been running day-to-day operations in Iraq. They’re now in the process of returning home to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The largest group of about 250 soldiers was scheduled to fly in Wednesday night after The Olympian’s print deadline.
Some top officers, including Grippe and Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the I Corps commander, were not expected to be on that plane.
In Iraq, you might see Grippe when he meets with troops in Anbar. Or along the Syrian border. Or inside Kurdistan. Or at his office in the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad. Grippe is constantly on the road with his three-vehicle convoy, visiting soldiers across the country.
He’ll crack jokes. He’ll call you a wild man. If your nickname isn’t already Coopster, it’s now Wild Man.
He’ll regale you with tales about staring down Iranian border guards. Or trudging through palm groves. Or riding down rivers looking for weapons smugglers, real “Heart of Darkness” type of stuff.
And after about the second or third time Frank Grippe notices you, it becomes obvious that his demeanor is no act.
“He really is that high-speed 24/7,” said Staff Sgt. Steven Mueller, a member of Grippe’s personal security detail. “He’s a machine. I have no idea how he does it.”
Grippe (pronounced GRIP-pee) has been high-speed since the Frankfort, N.Y., native joined the Army in 1981. Trained as an infantryman. Learned how to jump from airplanes. First joined an airborne unit in Italy, then transferred to the 82nd Airborne Division.
He later joined 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis. With those special-ops soldiers – really high-speed soldiers, Grippe says – he served as a squad leader, platoon sergeant, battalion operations sergeant and first sergeant.
He deployed to Afghanistan – by then a command sergeant major – as part of the invasion and went back again in 2003-04. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-06 and came back to Fort Lewis in April as I Corps’ top enlisted soldier.
He implemented a back-to-basics rulebook for physical training at the local Army post – push-ups, sit-ups, calisthenics, hand-to-hand combat. And, of course, running – with and without body armor and rucksacks.
“Warrior tasks,” he calls them. No more team sports. At least not during the sacred PT hour that starts at 6:30 a.m.
In Iraq, he criss-crosses the country in Mine Resistant Ambushed Protected vehicles with his 14-person personal security detail. He draws a soldier from each of the major Joint Base Lewis-McChord units deployed to Iraq. Each has a certain skill set: infantry, artillery, medics, military police, mechanics.
There’s Mueller, a 39-year-old Arizona native and DuPont resident serving his fourth overseas deployment as the detail’s noncommissioned officer in charge.
There’s Spc. Kasey Tucker, a 23-year-old medic. She’s the team’s point person to engage Iraqi females.
There’s Spc. Stephen Chol, the Arabic linguist originally from southern Sudan who has been in Iraq for more than two years. (Grippe likes to tell the Iraqis that he and Chol are twins.)
Grippe and his soldiers – his high-speed guys – go anywhere in Iraq where American soldiers are serving, from giant bases to tiny outposts. They’ve rolled for more than 10,000 miles since they deployed.
Grippe could grab a UH-60 Black Hawk and fly wherever he wants – rank does have its privilege, after all – but he likes seeing the ground view of Iraq.
He’s like a traveling, one-man USO show. The soldiers of 17th Fires Brigade call him Big Guns Grippe, because every time he visits the Lewis-McChord artillery brigade in southern Iraq, he has a habit of yelling out, “How are my big guns doing?!”
Stryker soldiers from the Lewis-McChord 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division talk about a foot patrol Grippe came on; they say he cracked off-the-wall jokes the entire time.
And when soldiers from the 82nd Airborne were jumping from a C-130 over the skies of Anbar province for training, Grippe was the second guy to jump from the plane.
“He’s just always on,” said Tucker, a Georgia native. “He’s always excited about everything.”
She glanced over at Grippe and smiled.