Craig Grossi: A Marine With a "Stubbornly Positive" Mission

Craig Gossi

Photo by Nora Parkington

“My first book 'Craig and Fred'…, I did not intend for it to be received as mental health in any way,” says Craig Grossi in an interview with Verywell Mind. “They’re just stories.” It turns out, though, that Grossi tapped into something people wanted to read, and a lot of that had to do with mental health. That’s because although "Craig and Fred" features Fred, Grossi’s dog, on the cover, a lot of Grossi’s story has to do with his time in Afghanistan and the challenges to veterans when they come home.

Grossi met Fred in Afghanistan, and in a place of utter hopelessness, Fred showed Grossi what being “stubbornly positive”—being positive despite obstacles—can do. That made people want to read and got Grossi and Fred to cross the country talking at schools, veterans centers, and other organizations. Now Grossi (and Fred) has been named as part of the Verywell Mind 25, and no one could be more surprised, or delighted, than him.

Grossi's Journey

But before Grossi could publish a book, before he could speak at places around the country, there was just a man and a dog. Back then, Grossi was an intelligence collector in the Marines who inserted with his unit at night into a house in Helmand province. They were in the most violent area of the country, and the Taliban kept coming at them, yet amidst that, there was this dog that seemed unaffected. Small and white and happy, even in 120-degree weather, the dog was inexplicably upbeat.

When the Taliban finally backed off a little, Grossi decided to give the dog a piece of beef jerky. But as he walked toward the dog, he saw he was covered in bugs, and Grossi could see his ribs. “Just leave him alone,” Grossi told himself. After all, he was cute, but you can’t just approach a dog in the middle of Afghanistan. Grossi started to turn around. That’s when he heard it. Thump, thump, thump. The dog was wagging his tail. Grossi was shocked and confused… and intrigued. He got closer and held the jerky out. Instead of grabbing it, the dog took the jerky as gently and delicately as he could with his front teeth and politely ate it.

This was Grossi’s first introduction to being stubbornly positive. The dog who would become Fred had no reason to trust that Grossi would be kind to him, and yet he still wagged his tail and believed it was possible. That’s how Grossi has come to explain the mindset of being stubbornly positive. “It’s wagging your tail when the world is telling you that you should stay down and you should be angry and you should feel vindicated in negativity,” explains Grossi.

It’s wagging your tail when the world is telling you that you should stay down and you should be angry and you should feel vindicated in negativity.


Stubborn positivity doesn’t mean you avoid your problems. Instead, says Grossi, “it’s leaning into those challenges and facing those problems and finding a reason to wag your tail in the problem. It’s rooted in the idea of the obstacle is the way. You don’t go around it, you go right into it…, and find your purpose in that pain and in that challenge.” It’s that message that’s resonated with so many people across the country—and has them assuming the best of each other.

Finding a Way From Behind the Wall

It’s Grossi’s message that led to his second book, "Second Chances: A Marine, His Dog, and Finding Redemption," about his work with prison inmates in Maine. When Grossi originally walked into the prison, he was filled with doubt. He was expecting the guys on the inside to be full of excuses and lacking in any accountability. But Fred eagerly dragged him in, and Grossi is glad he did because he found it to be the exact opposite of what he anticipated.

Everyone there was taking the opportunity to lean into what they could offer as a person through these programs the prison offered. The programs, which included gardening and dog training, were spearheaded by the prison’s warden Randy Liberty, who, within weeks of taking over the job, had whittled the rate of solitary confinement down from hundreds to a dozen. That’s because he preferred to reward good behavior than punish bad behavior.

It won’t surprise anyone to know that Grossi took a particular interest in the program where inmates raised Labrador puppies that were destined for veterans in need. The inmates establish incredible bonds with these dogs over a year, and then they give them away. It changes someone’s life, yes, but the inmate will never meet that individual, and then they get another puppy, and they do it all again. “It makes me cry because it’s incredible,” Grossi confesses. “They’re in their own toxic place just like Fred was in Afghanistan, and they’re wagging their tails. They’re finding a way from behind the wall to impact the world in a beautiful way.”

Stubborn Positivity and Facing Trauma

Grossi has clearly found his calling, and Fred has been a big part of that. Stubborn positivity has become his raison d’etre, and Fred continues to show him how to do it. Grossi continues to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but he was lucky to have Fred there when he had just come back from Afghanistan. When he first got home, he thought time would take care of his trauma; he just had to give it the space to happen. But it was Fred that showed him that he had to take charge of his trauma. 

Whenever he walked Fred, people would ask him what kind of dog he was, and for over a year, Grossi would make something up because he didn’t want to relive Afghanistan. Then one day at the dog park, it all just tumbled out: where Fred came from, the horrors of Afghanistan, and how Grossi got Fred home. When they were walking home afterward, Grossi started to cry. Fred had pulled the story out of him, the first step along a healing journey. Now he wants to pull stories out of others.   

Grossi may not think of himself as a mental health professional, but he has chosen a niche where mental health plays a big part. Stubborn positivity, whether he’s writing about it in books or speaking about it to audiences, has a real impact on our mental health and how we deal with the world. It isn’t about being positive no matter what. It’s about leaning into challenges and wagging your tail, which can make the difference between blocking the world out and inviting the world in. 

“It’s choices,” Grossi observes. “You can choose to see the negative, and you will. And it’s not that I don’t see it, it’s not that I don’t understand that it’s there. It’s just, life is so short and precious. It’s worth focusing on the things that bring you joy and the things that you can control, and the things that make a difference. Finding the positive and finding the reasons to wag your tail is the way that I’ve made sense of it.”

Despite the fact that he didn’t set out to make an impact in the mental health space, Grossi is excited that he has. “I just wanted to, and I still want to tell stories, and I think it says a lot about readers and what people are looking for, that me opening up and being vulnerable about my story in my first book and then continuing that in my second book through my own story and the story of other people that we’re all so interested in how [others are] dealing with the challenges of everyday life. I’m so incredibly grateful that my writing can be enveloped in this much broader, much more extensive work that Verywell Mind is doing.”

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.