A onetime high school track coach in Georgia, Gen. Griffith earned his Army commission in 1960 at the suggestion of his friend Forrest “Spec” Towns, an Olympic hurdler and Army veteran. “Leading soldiers is a lot like coaching,” Towns told him, “but you don’t have to deal with parents.”
Gen. Griffith went on to serve two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he was an infantry adviser to the Vietnamese army and wounded by a grenade blast. (He later invited his children and grandchildren to feel the shrapnel lodged in his head.) By 1989, when he was given command of the German-based 1st Armored Division, he was considered one of the Army’s finest battlefield tacticians.
In February 1991, he played a leading role in Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s “left hook” maneuver, when about 270,000 American, British and French soldiers outflanked the Iraqi army and liberated Kuwait. The ground offensive effectively ended the Gulf War in 100 hours. Gen. Griffith said he had initially feared it might last six months, given the purported strength of Hussein’s elite Republican Guard.
“This has never been done,” he told the Los Angeles Times after the battle. “You had a high school team playing in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, and they got their ass whipped.”
Gen. Griffith, who directed much of the battle from aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, later said his division had destroyed 630 Iraqi tanks and lost only four of their own.
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He went on to serve as Army inspector general for four years before being named vice chief of staff, the Army’s second-highest-ranking position, in 1995. He served two years until retiring from the military in 1997.
The job required a deft touch, said Joe R. Reeder, who served alongside Gen. Griffith as undersecretary of the Army. In addition to coordinating with the other service branches and with civilian agencies, Gen. Griffith helped oversee the rise of new roles for women in the Army — an initiative that drew heated debate.
“He had uncanny diplomatic skills,” Reeder said in a phone interview. “When there was an issue that needed someone who was a facilitator, or someone who knew how to find a win-win, or to find what Ronald Reagan called ‘the pony in the manure,’ Ron could do it.”
Ronald Houston Griffith was born in LaFayette, Ga., on March 16, 1936, and graduated from high school in nearby Lakeview. His mother was an English teacher, and his father was a car salesman.
He played baseball at the University of Georgia, where he graduated in 1960, and briefly played catcher as a semipro; years later, he would coach Army teams in Korea and at Fort Hood. In 1980, he received a master’s degree in public administration from Shippensburg State College, now Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.
Gen. Griffith commanded units in West Germany and South Korea before his rise through the Pentagon hierarchy. He received military honors including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Legion of Merit, seven awards of the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, two awards of the Meritorious Service Medal and three awards of the Air Medal.
After retiring from the Army, he was executive vice president of MPRI, a military contractor in Alexandria, Va., that was eventually acquired by the L-3 Services Group. He served on the board of regents at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a federal service academy in Bethesda, Md., and on the boards of the Virginia Military Institute and the Aurora Foundation, which aims to help veterans graduate from college and enter the workforce.
Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Hurdis M. Griffith of Arlington, dean emeritus at the Rutgers University College of Nursing; two daughters, Leigh Ann Todd of Charlotte and Laura Thompson of Rossville, Ga.; a brother; a sister; and five grandchildren.
In a video marking the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War, Gen. Griffith said there was “nothing more rewarding, nothing more important, really, than the relationship, the comradeship that I enjoy with friends from my life in the Army.”
He had championed their service for decades, encouraging reporters to remember that the success of the military operation against Hussein and his forces was not possible without the efforts of his soldiers and officers.
“The press said this guy was 8 feet tall — we took him down in four days,” Gen. Griffith told the Times in 1991. “But I hope that we don’t now say that this guy was a paper tiger because our guys steamrollered all over him. I hope somebody says that our guys were pretty good.”
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