Leonette “Lee” Griffin’s lab coat hangs from a hook on the back of her office door in Room 127 of UNC Greensboro’s Sullivan Science Building.
It’s a lab coat unlike any worn by her colleagues in the biology department, where she’s worked as a research specialist for the past five years.
Griffin’s coat is a random mish-mash of green, black, brown and tan colors. It’s a tangible link to her past life, to 11 years that shaped her into the person she is today.
It’s the battle dress uniform jacket she wore when she was Corporal Leonette Griffin of the U.S. Army’s Third Division.
“I just thought, ‘Why should I risk ruining a nice white lab coat?’” Griffin says. “So I got out my old BDU and started using it instead. It’s already dark, and it’ll hide any stains.”
In her research specialist role at UNCG, Griffin works as a lab manager and microscope technician. She was a communications specialist in the Army, and there’s a vintage magazine ad framed in her office, a World War II recruiting pitch for the Signal Corps.
“This job at The G was new for me, yes, but the military helped with that,” Griffin says. “Because everything in the Army is about being able to think on your feet and adjust on the fly. Those things became necessary life skills.”
Griffin grew up in a military family. Her father, uncles, and some of her aunts all served. She was born at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks, where her dad was a drill sergeant at the time. As a child, she moved from post to post, living on bases in Germany, New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina.
“My dad was a career military man, 26 years in the Army,” Griffin says. “It’s just kind of what we do. In my family, if you don’t know what you want to do after high school, it’s always, ‘Well, go sign up for four years. You might find work you like, you never know.’”
Griffin joined the National Guard after high school at Mount Tabor and the N.C. School of Science and Math, then transferred to the regular Army.
As a communications specialist in the Signal Corps, she handled network switch operations, voice and data networks at Fort Leonard Wood, in overseas tours of duty in South Korea, Kuwait and Iraq, then finally at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
Griffin is a combat veteran. Third Infantry Division was the tip of the spear in 2003, not quite two years after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I was in the invasion force for Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Griffin says. “I was already in Kuwait, and they had told us we were all going home. But I started to figure out we weren’t when everybody else started showing up. It was just a brigade at first – a show of force – but then division command showed up. I knew right then we were going somewhere. Sure enough, we go across the berm into Iraq, and we’re the first ones into Baghdad. It was still Saddam International Airport when I got there.”
Griffin says her training got her through those days.
“You have to understand that communications does their real-world mission every single time they go in the field,” Griffin says. “So it’s all muscle memory by the time you do it for real in combat.”
After that tour of duty, Griffin began to think about life after the Army. She had a bad shoulder from a traffic accident in South Korea, an injury she aggravated in Iraq. Her knee and hip ached from wear and tear, and both would eventually need surgery.
“It was time to get out,” she says, “because I had done what I’d trained to do for 11 years. I had a combat patch. There was nothing left for me to prove.”
And now Griffin has been out of the Army longer than she was in, but the passage of time has not eroded the experience. It’s there. Every time she slips on that BDU lab coat.
“Some days, memories come back stronger than other days,” Griffin says. “With Veterans Day coming up, the memories are there. It’s that way every year.”
But the truth is, for Griffin and others like her who served their country, every day is Veterans Day. They did something important, and that part of their lives influenced the rest of their lives.
“What the Army considers ‘soft skills’ – and they really need to find a new word for that – I still use every day,” Griffin says. “It’s things like building relationships with other people and handling interpersonal conflicts. Those skills translate to civilian life quite well, because personalities are personalities. People react differently. If you can handle yourself in a combat zone, well, you can handle anything.”
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications