FORT JACKSON, S.C. - The new commandant at the Army's school for chaplains, whose father served in a segregated Army, says his selection as the first black person to lead the 88-year-old military institution is a reflection of America's diversity.
"This has some significance, so it's pretty cool," said Chaplain Col. Clarke McGriff, 51.
Looking at the photos and mementoes of his 25-year, globe-spanning career, Col. McGriff said he hopes to use his position at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School to make a difference in the lives of soldiers and their families.
"This is a tremendous institution," he said in an interview.
He said he draws inspiration from the school's students, who have volunteered to become chaplains at a time when many know they are heading into combat.
"I guarantee you, a good number of them will be in Iraq or Afghanistan before December. That's the reality of the time. They know that and they still come," Col. McGriff said.
The school, with its staff of 30 civilians and 73 teachers and administrators in uniform, trains chaplains who are ordained civilian clergy and seminarians to serve in the Army.
It also conducts basic and advanced officer training for active duty and Army Reserve chaplains. Enlisted soldiers and noncommissioned officers can attend the school to become chaplain assistants.
In 2006, 1,278 students were trained at the school. Col. McGriff said there are 2,500 chaplains in the Army's active duty, Reserve and National Guard, representing 123 denominations.
Because of the broad range of faith groups in the military, Col. McGriff said one of the most important lessons taught at the school is for chaplains of every denomination to learn to minister to soldiers and families of every faith.
"We provide for the free exercise of religious freedom," Col. McGriff said. "Denominations fade because we work with so many soldiers with different faiths."
The new posting in South Carolina also gives Col. McGriff the opportunity to spend some time studying his family history.
"Matthew Mark McGriff, my great-great-granfather, was a slave," born between 1845 and 1855, Col. McGriff said. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were sharecroppers in Lancaster County, about 60 miles north of Fort Jackson. Family members are studying records back to the early 1800s to trace the family's roots, he said.
"I'm excited about it," Col. McGriff said. "We've been back for a short visit, and I want to go again."
Col. McGriff's father left the sharecropping life and joined the U.S. Army during World War II.
Col. McGriff said he searched for his father's military record while serving at the Pentagon. His father never rose above the rank of private in the then-segregated service, and was never recognized with a commendation despite being wounded in combat.
"I'm sorry I didn't talk with him about it," Col. McGriff said of his father's time in the military.
His father died in 1983. But Col. McGriff knows one thing: "He was very proud of me."
Chaplain Col. Clarke McGriff
POSITION: Commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School, ordained American Baptist minister
EDUCATION: B.A. political science, Distinguished Military Graduate, 1977, North Carolina A&T State University; attended Army's Command & General Staff College, the U.S. Army War College, the Army's Airborne and Air Assault Schools; master's degree, Strategic Forces, Kansas State; Master of Divinity degree, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary of Mill Valley, Calif., 1980
MILITARY ASSIGNMENTS: Battalion chaplain at Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Kobbe, Republic of Panama; brigade chaplain, Fort Benning, Ga.; division chaplain at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Bosnia- Herzegovina; theater support command chaplain, Taegu, Korea; corps chaplain, Fort Lewis, Wash.; director of family life center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas; staff chaplain, U.S. Army Chemical Activity Pacific, Johnston Atoll; logistics and military construction manager, office of the chief of chaplains, Pentagon
FAMILY: Married Susan Parker of Mill Valley, Calif., in 1981; four children