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A midlife quest
Airline executive builds roads and relationships in Afghanistan


David Grizzle with Afghan security guards during a refueling stop on a flight to inspect the Kabul-Kandahar road.  
“As I approached 50, I began to ask myself whether there was anything I should be doing differently,” said David Grizzle, a senior vice president at Continental Airlines and a long-time member of St. John the Divine, Houston.  When the Pentagon called to ask him to serve in Afghanistan, “it seemed to correspond with the sense of urging I had been feeling.”

Grizzle took a leave of absence and boarded a military plane in September 2004 for Afghanistan, where he served with the State Department for 14 months as transportation and infrastructure coordinator.  Grizzle’s wife and three sons helped make his personal quest a reality.  Anne, a family therapist, described their family as “base camp.”

“[Home] is like a refueling station for all of us to go out into the world with our jobs, our ministries,” she said. “We come back to refuel, to be with each other and to cheer each other on.  Our purpose as a family is to encourage one another in our callings.”  Grizzle’s initially decided to go for patriotic reasons, he said.  He views the United States’ efforts there as “must not fail.” 

But he could not have embraced the venture without faith.  “Were I not utterly convinced of the redemptive purpose and power of Jesus Christ, I could not have done this.”

A year of new things

Following an abbreviated training from the State Department, “I had prepared myself to be killed, maimed or kidnapped,” said Grizzle.  “What I actually experienced largely caught me off guard.” 

He never felt at risk in Afghanistan, he said, although during his first missile attack, “I couldn’t decide whether to put on my pants and run to the bunker or climb under my bed.”  Fourteen months later, when the duck-and-cover siren went off during his last missile attack, Grizzle simply returned to the gym to finish his workout. 

Grizzle’s regular e-mail missives to family and friends were, at times, serious and poignant, often funny and always revealing the essence of the Afghani people along with a very personal side of Grizzle.

Through his letters, diocesan staff attended meetings at the ministries offices, ate raisins and cashews from crystal bowls, inspected roads aboard helicopters and cheered when [student] Mujeep did his homework. They observed the elections, where the polling booth “consisted of open stalls with plastic sheeting overhead, and within the enclosure were two voting stations … I saw a veritable parade of ladies in their uniform blue burqas coming in all directions, with all of themselves, even their feet, obscured and looking like a convergence of blue Lady Packmen” coming to vote.  The Taliban blew up a bridge, and people still forded the stream to vote, he wrote. 

At his first board meeting with the minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism, the last man to sit at the large oval table “was dressed in the slept-in thrift-store business casual of most middle management I had encountered,” he wrote. At a nod from the minister, the man began a sung prayer. “I had an immediate sense that this sung Dari prayer in Kabul was carrying me to a place I had not encountered before. I certainly was not going to be left out of the occasion for prayer, so I bowed my head and prayed silently as he sang ... everyone seemed as comfortable as I had been with my having been there. 

This, my first board meeting in Afghanistan, was emblematic of the puzzling way that the familiar and the startlingly unfamiliar are married in daily experience here.”

Grizzle worshiped at the Christian Community Church of Kabul, established in the late 1950s. Four hundred regularly attended worship on Fridays – Catholics, Charismatics, Presbyterians – a broad group of people “all getting along quite comfortably.” With this much diversity, “members [in America] would decide they couldn’t get along and they would split up,” he said.  “Here, there’s no place to go.”

A formidable legacy

According to Lou Hughes, Grizzle’s immediate supervisor in Afghanistan, their role was to coach and serve as mentors to President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet. “David made an extraordinary contribution,” said Hughes, a retired General Motors executive vice president and former president of Lockheed Martin.  “He brought enormous energy and passion to the job.  Many ministers would simply not make a decision without consulting him first.” 

Grizzle’s legacy is hundreds of miles of roads, a functioning national airline and airport, a realistic telecommunication strategy and a multilateral, multi-hundred-million-dollar plan to build a significant energy transmission and distribution network, Hughes said. 

While fruitful, his time in Afghanistan was not without frustrations.  Grizzle’s strategic plan and hoped-for goals were sidetracked for several months to plan the Hajj, helping to transport millions of Muslims to Mecca for a pilgrimage.  This year’s event went smoother, he said, because of the processes he helped put into place. 

Larry Kellner, president of Continental Airlines, wasn’t surprised.  “David is a highly intelligent businessman with a strong moral fiber.  He’s hardworking, and he gets the job done,” he said. 

Was his quest a success?  “I feel better and better about that the more distance I have from it,” Grizzle said.  He provided an example of “good management practice” and instilled “an ethic of planning that did not previously exist,”  he said. “Some roads get built, and buildings get renovated,” Grizzle told more than 250 people at a welcome-home dinner in November.  But interpersonal engagement of American to Afghan has “historically been where the true changing of hearts and minds occur.”