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Darrell Griffin Sr. will spend Memorial Day at a cemetery in the Los Angeles area remembering his son, Army Staff Sergeant Darrell Griffin Jr., who was killed in Iraq. He'll bring sunflowers and incense but his most special tribute is a book that became a final gift to his son. From Los Angeles, Gloria Hillard brings us the story.
GLORIA HILLARD: Standing next to his son's grave, Darrell Griffin Sr. translates the abbreviated carvings of the headstone. Etched in the white marble they remind you of an ancient language. First are the letters B-S-M-V.
DARRELL GRIFFIN SR: What that stands for is Bronze Star Medal with Valor and then P-H is Purple Heart, and K-I-A is Killed in Action.
HILLARD: He used to visit every Sunday; now he comes here at least twice a month. The ritual is always the same: he lights two sticks of his son's favorite incense. The small chimes he brought here years ago dance in the breeze above a new bouquet of sunflowers.
GRIFFIN SR: He loved sunflowers, always loved sunflowers. I mean, you know, it's a big tough guy but he loved sunflowers.
HILLARD: Military grave markers only allow a few words - most begin the with the word beloved. This one reads husband, son and brother. But the father realized he had more to say.
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HILLARD: Back home, the walls of Griffin's office are lined with books. But the one he is holding in his hands is his most cherished. He flips through the pages.
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HILLARD: They are underlined, highlighted with bright colors and bookmarked with Post-It notes. On the cover it lists two authors, Darrell Griffin Sr. and Darrell Griffin Jr.
GRIFFIN SR: Well, I don't know if he's joking or serious but he was real little and he said, dad, did I have to take your name because we couldn't afford another one? And I just always remember that.
HILLARD: The book is titled "Last Journey: A Father and Son in Wartime." It is a compilation of hundreds of emails, letters and his son's journal.
GRIFFIN SR: This is where he started his journal: (Reading) I'm attempting to create an account of two tours of combat Iraq as an infantryman and I'm trying to make sense of a world that I'd never known until the first time that I had to kill a man.
HILLARD: Griffin says he knew when his son was frightened because he would sign his emails with Skip or Skipper, his childhood nickname.
GRIFFIN SR: (Reading) Dear Mom and Dad I'm convoying within hours and just ask that you pray for me and believe for me because I can't right now. I will email you as soon as I get there. Skipper.
HILLARD: Their last conversation was on his son's 36th birthday.
GRIFFIN SR: He said, dad, I'm just tired. I just want to come home and he never talked like that to us before.
HILLARD: A week later, a sniper's bullet killed Darrell Griffin Jr. Overcome with grief, his father knew he had to complete the book they had started together, inspired by their conversations; musings and questions about God shaped by war. But first, there was something else he had to do.
GRIFFIN SR: Nobody believed I could go to Iraq because they don't let parents go to the war zone.
HILLARD: With the help of his congressman and General David Petraeus, Griffin traveled to Baghdad and then by Black Hawk helicopter to Camp Striker where his son's unit was located. One night, he couldn't sleep so he decided to take a walk and then he heard another set of boots on the ground.
GRIFFIN SR: And it was my son. And it was absolutely unequivocally my son, not an image, not a dream; I was walking and there was my son. And in his normal vernacular, he said, dad, what the F are you doing here? He said, this is dangerous. And before I could answer, he said, dad, don't worry about me. I'm in a good place - and then he was gone.
HILLARD: "Last Journey" will always be the last gift to his son. Griffin picks up his copy.
GRIFFIN SR: And I can see him smiling knowing this is what he left me as his last gift.
HILLARD: Not only the worn book in his hands, but the courage to realize his long-held dream of being a writer. The 58-year-old former CPA is now working on his second book.
For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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