TAMPA — U.S. Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, is a busy place these days, what with Iraq under siege, Syria’s revolution and a war set to wind down in Afghanistan.
But the command took some time-out Friday afternoon to say goodbye to an institution.
Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe is retiring after more than 33 years in the Army. He is being replaced Christopher Greca, whose last position was Command Sgt. Maj. of U.S. Army Forces Command.
The ceremony also marks the return of Jill Kelley to MacDill – her first visit since emails sent to her by Army Reserve major Paula Broadwell in 2012 set off a series of events that led to the resignation of the director of the CIA and the decision by a Marine general not to seek a promotion.
In a lawsuit, Kelley claims the emails, sent anonymously, were threatening.
As Centcom’s command sergeant major, Grippe served as the bridge between the four-star commander and the troops.
During his time at Centcom, Grippe served under Marine Gen. James Mattis and now Austin.
“He is just one of the finest soldiers I have ever served alongside,” Mattis said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview. “He is a powerhouse of energy and a sound, very sound tactical leader who was my right-hand man every step of the way at Centcom.”
Mattis added that “it was a delight to watch him infuse his energy across the command. He is a wild man. I love the guy.”
Grippe, who spent a large chunk of time touring bases around the Centcom region and around the country, famously exhibited his exuberance in a 2009 appearance on “The Colbert Report” when the Comedy Channelshow visited Iraq, where he was command sergeant major for of the Multi-National Corps Iraq.
Clambering on stage gripping an M-4 rifle, Grippe talked about how non-commissioned officers — those in rank from sergeant to command sergeant major — “are the backbone of the Army, the backbone of Department of Defense. We get the job done.”
Grippe, a native of New York State, entered the Army in April 1981, deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and has earned a number of medals and commendations, including the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit (1 oak leaf cluster), the Bronze Star for Valor with three oak leaf clusters for service, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters and the Army Commendation Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
Greca entered the Army in 1986, has been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and earned the Legion of Merit with two oak leaf clusters, a Bronze Star Medal with two oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal with five oak leaf clusters.
Friday’s ceremony also served as the return to the military limelight for Kelley. Largely unknown beyond military circles, Kelley hosted parties for commanders at MacDill and visiting dignitaries and was awarded the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s second-highest honor to a civilian. The 39-year-old South Tampa woman gained international fame after she turned over what she claims were threatening emails the FBI, who would learn they came from Broadwell.
That led to the discovery of an affair between Broadwell and David Petraeus, former Centcom commander and CIA director at the time. Petraeus resigned days after President Barack Obama was re-elected.
John Allen, at the time a Marine general in charge of operations in Afghanistan, opted not to seek a new role as commander of U.S. forces in Europe after the discovery of thousands of emails between him and Kelley sparked an investigation ultimately clearing Allen of any wrongdoing.
Kelley is suing the FBI, Department of Defense and various former Pentagon and State Department officials over how her name was leaked.
“I am proud to show my unbending support to our troops, and join Central Command in honoring Command Sergeant Major Frank Grippe for his years of exceptional service and steadfast friendship,” Kelley said in an emailed statement.