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Step by step: TACP family traces fallen brother’s final path, 'Finish strong'

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) --

The morning of Aug. 8, 2012, Heather Gray was preparing an anniversary care package for her deployed husband, a tactical air control party member assigned to the 13th Air Support Operational Squadron at Fort Carson, Colo.

Around 8 a.m., a vehicle pulled into her driveway. She wasn’t familiar with the vehicle and her children were asleep, so she decided not to answer the initial ringing of her doorbell. As the ringing persisted, her children awoke and prompted her to answer.

Heather opened the door to a colonel wearing his dress blues. Initially, she said, she just thought “It’s (blues) Monday.” Then, she noticed a chaplain standing, visibly shaking and clutching a piece of paper.

When Heather saw the pair, she recognized them as a casualty notification team. As a key spouse, she thought she had been chosen to go with them to deliver devastating news to another TACP family.

“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘Oh no, who was it?’” she said. “(The colonel) said ‘No Heather -- it’s David,’ and it was like the whole world just went into tunnel vision. I had just talked to him six hours before that … I just kept saying ‘Are you sure it’s David?’ It was a very long process of putting it together … that he was going to be the one who wasn’t coming back.”

Heather’s husband, Maj. Walter David Gray, an Air Liaison officer assigned to the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, was killed that day by a suicide bomber in Kunar province, Afghanistan.

Gray was hit by the second of two suicide bombers. After the first blast, he and his team rushed the scene to help when the second blast went off.

In his memory, 13 members of the 13th ASOS took on a 140-mile ruck march from Dover Air Force Base, Del., to Arlington National Cemetery, Va., arriving on the anniversary of David’s passing.

“He made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Master Sgt. Mitchell Polu, the NCO in charge of the13th ASOS Delta Flight. “What we’re doing right now is nothing compared to what Major Gray, Heather Gray and his family and kids had to go through.”

The TACP Airmen chose their route to provide much needed closure for the Airmen, Polu said. With four months left on their deployment, Gray’s Airmen were unable to return from the war zone to escort him home or attend his funeral. Their grueling trek from the mortuary at Dover AFB to Arlington traced Gray’s route to his final resting place.  

For their visit, instead of driving or flying to Arlington, the ruck march was unanimously voted to be the most fitting way to honor their fallen brother.

“It meant a lot more for us to walk it … this is (the TACP) way of doing things,” said Senior Airman Justin Jackson, a TACP assigned to the 13th ASOS.

The Airmen of the 13th ASOS share one common sentiment toward Gray -- he was like a father to them. He was the first one through the door and the last to leave. Polu said Gray spent one-on-one time with each and every Airman under his command.

“He cared so much about us,” said Senior Airman Matthew Swift, a TACP assigned to the 13th ASOS. “I had two family members pass away while I was deployed, and when my gran’daddy passed … he flew all the way to my (forward operating base) and spent the whole day there with me.  He stopped what he was doing and came out just to see me. ”

That care and loyalty is now repaid by the TACP community to Gray’s family. Every week, Heather said, members of the TACP community check up on her, to see if there is anything she needs, from moving furniture to child care.

“David always told me, ‘If anything ever happens to me, my guys will take care of you,’” Heather said. “(The support) has been amazing.”

Heather said it’s not just the Airmen from the 13th ASOS, but the entire TACP community.  

Gray’s journey to the TACP career field started early in his career, when he completed TACP training as a young enlisted Airman. He later commissioned, and waited patiently for the career field to open to officers. Heather said the day it opened, Gray came home with a big smile on his face.

TACPs primarily act as a vital link between ground forces and the aircraft that support them. They put themselves in harm’s way to ensure bombs are on target. Gray’s choice to rejoin the career field and participate in the rigorous training again at age 37 was “a hard sell” to his wife she said.

“He just kept saying ‘You don’t understand, it’s so different; it’s what I’m meant to do,’” Heather said. “(He said) ‘This is why I joined the Air Force.’”

The crew’s journey to honor Gray was made possible through a combination of permissive TDY from their commander, donations from the TACP Association and the public, and out-of-pocket expenses in the form of both money and ordinary leave.

“To be with (his fellow Airmen) is very special,” Heather said. “I don’t really have words to describe how much it means to me that they’re doing this. I love each and every one of them, and they truly are like having a family of older brothers. I’m very humbled and inspired by these guys, and I know that it’s a direct reflection of what kind of leader he was for them.”

Gray was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Valor, and his sacrifice inspired Heather to start a foundation and scholarship in his honor. Heather joined the Airmen for the last leg of the journey, with all three Gray children making the final mile. She said when things get tough, she hears her husband’s voice reciting what has become a motto for her – “Finish strong.”

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