Craig Grossi stood on the stage with just a notecard in his hand. His father had tried to get him to write a speech but that wasn’t Craig’s style. Instead, he jotted a few ideas down on the notecard and planned to improvise the rest. It was so appropriate that this was how he chose to give the speech; after all his classmates hadn’t chosen him to be their graduation speaker because of his flawless academic record or reputation for doing things “by-the-book.” They chose him because of his uncanny ability to reach people, whether through humor, logic, or kindness.
It’s a fair assumption that someone with this kind of ability would have a whole future set for him. He would go to college. He would meet a girl. He would get a job. He would buy a house. He would raise a family. But when graduation day arrived, Craig wasn’t set to go to college. In fact, he wasn’t set to do anything. The graduation speaker, adored by his classmates, didn’t have a next step in front of him after he got his diploma.
Craig remembers that summer and watching his friends drift off to college. He remembers seeing them take the next step but feeling stuck in the same place and how that feeling drove him crazy. A teenager with that much ability is naturally restless. Craig had so much energy and ambition but he lacked a channel. He knew he wanted to do something great, he just didn’t know what that something was.
He enrolled in community college for a semester but quickly abandoned that idea. It’s not that he wasn’t challenged; rather he felt that he could avoid the challenge if he wanted to and still achieve success. Just like high school, he felt that he could have goofed around, made a half-hearted effort, and still walked out with the same diploma as someone who gave it their best effort. That wasn’t for him. Craig wanted to be held accountable. He wanted to do something where, in his words, “if you didn’t make it, you didn’t make it. There is no leeway.”
So, in 2003, Craig joined the Marine Corps. Although his family did not have a history of military service, the values Craig’s family instilled in him were certainly tailored towards the Corps. Moreover, he finally found a place where he was going to be held to a standard. When describing his years in training, Craig uses words like awesome and cool. That better than anything illustrates how excited he was to have found something to channel all that restless energy.
Craig joined the human intelligence sector and served his first tour in Afghanistan. A number of things happened in Afghanistan and several of those things had an impact on his perception of the military. He began to wonder if Corps was still the right choice for him. By the time he returned home, he questioned whether he would continue to serve. It was ultimately an incredibly tough decision but he chose to de-enlist after one tour.
To this day, Craig always emphasizes how blessed he was to not only return home safely but also to have such a smooth transition back into normal life. He secured a high profile government intelligence job that even college graduates had eagerly desired. He met a girl and became engaged. The two of them began to look for houses in the suburbs. All those things that are considered to be prototypical achievements of the American Dream looked to be in Craig’s future. But a feeling crept up on him one day when he was house shopping; it was the same feeling he felt when he sat in his first class at community college. Something wasn’t right.
Shortly after that day, Craig broke off the engagement and moved into an apartment by himself. He was right back in a position he had been in multiple times before: full of energy, but lacking clear direction. He chose to reenlist and served a second tour in Afghanistan. During that time, Craig met someone who has and continues to change his life every day. After four days of intense combat, Craig’s unit came across a stray dog. Fred the Afghan, as they called him, came to be part of that group of Marines. He slept with them, fought with them, and feared with them. He meant so much to them that they eventually coordinated an effort to smuggle him out of Afghanistan, across the Atlantic, and into the United States.
After returning from his second tour, with Fred waiting for him at home, Craig decided to enroll in Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies from which he just graduated this past May. And now, Craig is in an all too familiar situation. Armed with knowledge, energy, and a fiery desire to get something done, he’s faced with the question of what it is he’s going to accomplish. This time he wants to do something with Fred. He’s written a short story that he hopes to be able to turn into a book. A Facebook page for Fred the Afghan has already garnered over 1000 followers. He really believes in the power of Fred’s story and its ability to inspire people.
On Fred the Afghan’s Facebook page there is a quote: “it’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” At 33, Craig has been faced with one of life’s toughest questions more times than most people ever face it: “what do I do with my life?” He’s never been put in this position by bad luck or circumstance but by being true to himself. Nonetheless, the beauty of his story is that every time he’s been in that position he’s reacted the same way. He was a graduation speaker who wasn’t going to college. He earned a Purple Heart in the Marine Corps instead. He gave up a steady job and a wife without knowing what his next move would be. He decided to reenlist in the Marines where he found a friend in the middle of war torn Afghanistan. He just graduated college without having a job lined up. He’s planning on using that opportunity to share his passion for Fred with other people. All his reactions have been defined by a refusal to remain passive, an unrelentingly positive outlook on the future, and persistent desire to achieve something new. It’s these qualities that define Craig Grossi. It’s the same qualities that his classmates saw when they named him their graduation speaker. It’s the same things that have helped him continually explore what his American Dream has been and will be.