Craig’s candor caught me off-guard as he described the experience of narrowly avoiding death in Afghanistan, but then again, elite Marine Corps members have a unique lens through which they interpret their experiences. Craig went overseas as a CI/HUMINT (counterintelligence/human intelligence) operative, but little did he know that going to Afghanistan to serve his country would also allow him to find an amazing four-legged companion in a heavily fortified Taliban stronghold.
Born in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington D.C., Craig grew up surrounded by public servants, including his father.
“My Dad was in the military for four years…but we weren’t a military family by any means. My Dad served for over 30 years in the federal government—he’s the ‘black box guy,’ the guy who shows up to get it and interpret the data (after a plane crash). He really showed me what it meant to serve something greater than yourself and instilled that in me.” In addition to his family, all of Craig’s neighbors were either military or public servants in some capacity.
Craig struggled with academics through high school and instead of making college plans, he started considering joining the Marine Corps after seeing an inspiring presentation at his high school job fair. Graduation rolled around, and then summer came and went. That fall (2001), the September 11 attacks provided the final motivation to go serve his country: Craig enlisted immediately.
Enlisted and Ready to Serve
Going through boot camp and all of the other associated training was everything Craig had expected. But after completing his initiation, his enthusiasm quickly fizzled when he was assigned as a police corrections guard at a military brig in South Carolina. It wasn’t the Middle East deployment he had hoped for. Eventually, he was reassigned to Guantanamo Bay (aka Gitmo), which was also not quite what he had in mind. Craig described his experience as “heartbreaking [since] there were a lot of people down there who clearly didn’t belong.” Feeling helpless to create real change in Gitmo, Craig carried candy around in his pockets to share with the prisoners and did his best to be fair and compassionate in performing his duties; it was the best he could do.
After completing his assignment at Gitmo, Craig left the Marine Corps and then re-enlisted so he could change his trajectory. He obtained the necessary security clearances and 8 months later, Craig began training to be a CI/HUMINT (Counter Intelligence/Huaman Intelligence). 75% of his 40-person class washed out during the course work. Craig stuck it out, completed his training, and finally got the deployment he was after – Helmand Provence, Afghanistan.
Once there, Craig connected with a spec ops recon team to patrol and collect intelligence on the battlefield. A special assignment saw him inserted into Sangin, a Taliban stronghold on the shores of the Helmand River. The assignment was extremely dangerous, with 8 to 10 marines losing their lives every week at this location. “Before they would leave their FOB, [marines] were pre-applying tourniquets to their legs, because it was that likely that they were going to step on an IED,” he said. There was a lot of anxiety surrounding the mission. “We were looking around [during the briefing] wondering who was going to die.”
Sangin & Fred the Afghan
After two harrowing weeks of firefights and mortar attacks, the Taliban fighters finally began avoiding the team’s position in Sangin. The fighting ebbed and that’s when Craig finally met Fred, a stray dog who he had seen on multiple occasions amongst the chaos. Fred wasn’t like the other strays, he was smaller and friendlier. Craig enticed him with beef jerky. “He reached up and took it just as gently as he could, despite [the fact that he was] starving.” After the small offering of kindness, Fred never left Craig’s side. He followed the team on night patrols, never barking or compromising their safety. Fred quickly became part of the team and everyone, Craig most of all, fell in love with him immediately.
Their assignment eventually ended, and Craig saw an opportunity to save Fred, who would have most likely died had he been left to fend for himself in Sangin. Craig smuggled Fred back to Camp Leatherneck in a duffel bag on their extraction helicopter (HIGHLY illegal) and did his best to hide him in plain sight while getting all of the customs paperwork in order with the help of DHL who had an office on their base. The DHL guys even looked after Fred when Craig had to return to Sangin just a couple weeks later.
That final assignment was cut short when a 107mm antitank rocket landed about 6 feet away from Craig on the far side of a mud wall. It completely obliterated the wall which collapsed on him, resulting in a traumatic brain injury. “I had a huge lump on my head, I couldn’t even get my helmet back on,” he said. Craig was med-evac’d back to Leatherneck where the doctors discussed sending him home. Craig managed to pass their medical tests and stick around long enough for Fred’s paperwork to come through: he was determined to get Fred home to the States.
Craig’s dad and sister drove up to JFK airport from Virginia to meet Fred (who got back to the States four months ahead of Craig). “My dad always said I couldn’t have a dog growing up because he would end up taking care of it, and his prediction came true,” Craig joked. Upon returning to the US, Craig got a civilian job as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “For a while I tried to play the veteran card—come home, move on, don’t talk about it. But little by little, walking Fred around DC, people would stop and ask what kind of dog he is. And little by little, I started to tell people that he was from Afghanistan and that I snuck him out.”
Talking about Fred led to educating people about his experience and the war efforts in Helmand Province. “The more I told the story of Fred, the more I realized that I felt better each time, and the more I remembered, and the more I saw purpose in my time [in Afghanistan].” This was a breakthrough for Craig as he and a lot of his military friends often felt like their service was all for nothing.
Craig recalled the night patrols in Sangin.
“I started developing relationships with Afghans that had been a part of the resistance. I talk a lot about it in my book—there was one guy who was a school teacher that was an incredible guy. He was teaching kids at night, even though [the Taliban] had assassinated his brother for doing the same thing a week before we got there. Just really incredible people—I’m really fortunate to have gotten to know so many Afghans and to see how kind and generous they were despite literally having nothing, and living between us and the Taliban. That was pretty incredible. The [Afghanis] that were willing to, we would help them move at night and get up to a different area where they wouldn’t get caught in the middle [of the fighting].”
Weekend camping and hiking trips with Fred helped Craig adjust to civilian life, and Fred remained a catalyst for Craig to tell his story and find meaning in his service. After two and a half years working for the government, the bureaucracy was getting to him and he didn’t feel like he was accomplishing anything. He left his job and went back to school at Georgetown University. This time school felt totally different. Craig enjoyed his classes and excelled as a student. He was on the right track.
He bought an old Land Cruiser and took weekend trips into the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains with Fred. He began writing, and the more he did it, the more he realized he loved it. Craig came to see that it was his duty to tell the story of Fred. “The fact that we both made it back, it felt like, this is what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to tell this story, I owe it to my friends who didn’t make it back, and to their families, and to the people of Afghanistan, to have their story told. And Fred makes the story so approachable.”
The book Craig and Fred has been out for two years now and it’s hit a bunch of bestseller lists. People from coast to coast have really connected with the story, including school systems that have adopted the book into their curriculum, and corporations and universities which have been using the story to inspire their employees and students. Now Craig and Fred travel and speak full time, sharing their experience and showing how powerful compassion, empathy, and love are. Craig has a new book coming out in Spring of 2021 about his experience at Guantanamo Bay.
All photos provided by Craig Grossi.
Check out Craig & Fred’s website, www.fredtheafghan.com, and follow them on social:
Facebook: Fred The Afghan
YouTube: Craig’s Channel