JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – As a young teenager, Graham White decided what he wanted to do for a career. Many youngsters think they know, but White was sure. And then he set his mind and his body to make it happen.
His decision was to become a career Army officer. So the day he turned 17, he joined the Georgia National Guard and volunteered for Airborne training under a program called Split Option.
“I grew up in an Army family,” he said. “My dad was a career officer with 31 years in the Army, so I always felt drawn to the service – especially to the Special Operations community.”
The summer between his junior and senior year at Chattahoochee High School, he went through basic training in Airborne School.
“The only thing that conflicted with that was football camp, and I got permission from Coach Waters to do it,” White said.
But while many of his friends were going on dates, one weekend a month, White was jumping out of airplanes. And when he graduated in 1996, White had an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
But White never forgot what his coaches and teachers meant to him at Chattahoochee High. So he came back to honor his school with the presentation of the American flag he carried on combat missions. During the halftime ceremony of the Chattahoochee-Johns Creek football game, he presented the flag to head football coach Terry Crowder.
Five of his former Chattahoochee coaches, Mike Cloy, Bill Waters, Norb Terza, Joey Matthews and Wade Alexander, were standing on the other side of the field as Johns Creek coaches.
“I didn’t plan it that way. But it was good that they could be there, because they were a positive influence on my life,” White said.
Today, White is a major and an Army Ranger. He graduated from West Point in 2000. Since then, he has spent a quarter of that time deployed to combat in Afghanistan, where he was most recently commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment Reconnaissance Company.
The Rangers have started a tradition of personally carrying a flag concealed in their packs while on a special operations mission.
“We carry the flag onto enemy ground as a symbolic gesture,” he said. “We then dedicate that flag to a family member, friend or organization that had supported that service member as having come with us.
“I had carried flags for some of my family members. But I wanted to carry this one for Chattahoochee High School football teams, because I felt like it was a big part of my young adult life,” he said. “It had a lot to do with who I am today, specifically the coaches I had at the time. Having them at the game that night just made it more special.”
At the end of his senior football season, White was selected as the AAAA First Team All-State Punter for the state of Georgia. He was chosen as the Offensive Player of the Year for football and inducted into the Chattahoochee Athletic Hall of Fame.
While at West Point, he played Army football and was involved in four Army-Navy games. As a nationally ranked punter, White was selected to represent West Point in the annual Blue-Gray Football Classic in Montgomery, Ala., in 1999. He still holds several Army football punting records.
Since he was commissioned a second lieutenant into the U.S. Army, he has spent the last 12 years in Airborne, conventional infantry and Ranger units. Beginning in 2002, White has been on a total of 10 combat deployments (nine with Ranger units).
Three of these deployments were to Iraq and seven were to Afghanistan. So far, White has served a total of 39 months in combat. He is a recipient of the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart, among other awards.
As the U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, White was asked how he sees the situation after the U.S. is gone.
“The people in those countries have to want peace to take hold as bad as we want them to want it,” he said. “I’m optimistic there will be peace in both countries.
“I’m comfortable with the job the U.S. has done in both countries. The military has done a good job and in my opinion has done everything it has been asked to do. I had no reservations going and no reservations leaving,” he said.
White is living in Washington, D.C., with his wife Carla while he attends Johns Hopkins University on a fellowship from the Special Operations Command. This is a scholarship that will allow him to get a master’s degree in international public policy.
Following that, he will serve two years in the Pentagon as a liaison to Congress.