Listening ears and caring hearts: Aiken resident recalls service to Pentagon victims after 9/11

Sep. 11—Sally B. Griffis, a native of west Texas, is a self-described "newbie" in Aiken, having moved to the area in July 2019, but she's a highly seasoned veteran in terms of reaching out to military families in their times of grief.

A military widow since 1970, she wound up going into high gear in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack in Washington, D.C., calling on her years of experience in TAPS — Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The organization dates back to 1994 and is described in promotional material as providing "comfort, care and resources to all those grieving the death of a military loved one."

Griffis was living in suburban Atlanta in 2001, working as a professional therapist, and decided to put her background and talent into action on behalf of people who had been hit hard by the attack involving American Airlines Flight 77, which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon, killing all 64 people on the plane and 125 people in the Pentagon, as stated on the memorial website.

She wound up in Washington, D.C., from Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, 2001, living in a hotel and being part of a massive effort to provide listening ears for grieving, overwhelmed people in the disaster zone.

"I would say that that was the most intense thing that I have, I think, ever done," she said.

"It was amazing, the way it was laid out," she said. "The Red Cross was there. Salvation Army was there, and ministers from the churches. It was really interesting to walk around there and look and be a part of such a thing ... All of us were listening ears and caring hearts, really."

Griffis, who retired in 2007, said TAPS is "pretty amazing."

She recalled how she struggled to deal with life immediately after her husband, William Alexander Griffis III, was killed in action Jan. 24, 1970, encountering a booby-trapped helicopter while working as a Marine on his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He died one day after the birth of Mitty, the Griffis' second daughter. The Griffis' other child, Sarah, was just shy of 4 years old at the time.

"I didn't have anyone to share stories with when I was a young widow, raising my two babies, and this was an opportunity to meet people like me, and that was just kind of a fit," she said, noting that after her husband's death, 27 years passed before she met another Vietnam widow.

Griffis grew up on a ranch about 30 miles from the town of Ozona, Texas, sharing the acreage with plenty of sheep. Her husband, a 1964 Naval Academy graduate, was described in the Naval Academy's 1964 annual with the following observation: "Bill's ardent moral and religious outlook should make him an outstanding officer of the U. S. Marine Corps, whose greens he plans to don on graduating. His other plans include marriage and getting off the East Coast, after his graduation."

His bride went to Vietnam in 1997 with Sarah and Mitty, visiting the site where the Marine in their family was killed.

Four years later, Griffis was on duty in Washington, D.C., and later recalled Sept. 11 as "a sad anniversary" but also representing "the experience that confirmed to me, America is full of warm and loving people regardless of any differences."