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A beacon in the storm

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFNS) -- (This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

Tech. Sgt. David Gray could only watch as she leaned forward and softly kissed him goodbye. There was simply nothing more that could have been done.

Feeling helpless, standing bedside with his mother, every imposing inch of his muscular frame had just been rocked. The aftershocks had yet to be felt, but the same ending shared by every man had come to call upon the Gray family.

Gray, who describes himself as having a Type-A personality, has never been the sort to ask for help. Growing up in the national capital region of Maryland, he had always been the one to whom others looked for strength and guidance.

His mother had affectionately nicknamed him Bossy because of his take-charge attitude, while also recognizing his firm but fair demeanor. Natural leadership was just one of the distinct traits acquired from his forefathers who served as the mold for Gray's future success.

Gray’s father was a dutiful employee who served more than 30 years with the federal government -- his last with the Department of the Navy. He instilled in his son a strong sense of service and family virtues. In many ways, the technical sergeant looked up to his father and grandfather as role models. To him, they were examples of how a man should conduct himself and take care of his family.

Every bit the patriarch, Gray’s father admired the man his son had become. When he visited family, often in uniform, his father remarked with great pride at his son's chosen profession as an Air Force defender.

"’Work hard, be honest and life will treat you good.’ That's what my father would say," Gray said. "He worked hard all his life. He was honest and gave us a good life. I'm proud of everything he accomplished.

"He would always say how great I looked in uniform, and was so proud of me being in the military,” Gray added. “It made him feel good, and deploying was something he was also proud of. He was just a great man."

In 1994, after 11 years of service, Gray separated from the Air Force. He decided it would be best to be home more, to help provide care for his 7-year-old daughter, Laura, who has special needs.

Then, Gray again felt the calling to serve in 2008. This time he enlisted as a member of the 113th Security Forces Squadron, District of Columbia Air National Guard.

He was selected for his second deployment with the unit, to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing in 2012. It was an opportunity to be back amongst Airmen every day, making meaningful connections with individuals who shared his sense of pride in service.

The pride of service Gray felt would be short-lived upon his return home. A few weeks after arriving back in Maryland, he received a frantic phone call from his sister.

"I was at home, my wife had gone out to pick up our daughter who was coming home from college for the holidays," Gray recalled. "My sister called and she was in a panic. My father was on dialysis, but he seemed fine … I remember my sister telling me he was sitting on the edge of the bed and his speech became slurred. Then he just sank from the bed to the floor. My father had just passed in front of my sister and my mom."

Like a disturbance on calm water, his father's passing sent ripples through Gray’s life. In the days and weeks that followed, the pain weighed on his mind and body like armor plating. He was sinking day by day into a deepening depression, unable to find joy in the things that had once defined his character.

Most telling were his withdrawals from family life and social interaction. During the day, he toiled through an existence in which he was just another employee, no longer a beacon of encouragement or positivity.

During his nights and weekends, he became increasingly lethargic. Gray spent his free time cocooned inside the blankets on his couch. Rather than enjoying the company of his wife and children, he shut out the world around him. He began to prefer a reclusive existence that harshly juxtaposed his distinctive desires for life and adventure.

Tech. Sgt. David Gray had succumbed to the inescapable forces of grief. He desperately needed a way out.

"My wife had noticed my behavior changing drastically," Gray said. "She told me that I needed get myself together and get some help, or she was going to leave.

“She had a right to say that, because I had no right to put my family through that,” he said. “I had received information about Military OneSource at a Yellow Ribbon Program briefing about redeployment services. It all clicked and I called to see what they offered."

Through his work with a faith-based counselor, Gray said he started to put his life back in order. Over time, the pain of his father's death slowly began to subside. His experience was so positive that he became determined to be a source of strength for others dealing with similar struggles.

"For my father to die just before the holidays just overwhelmed me," Gray said. "All of those emotions came together and sent me into a downward spiral and a deep depression. The professionals helped me realize that all of the emotions I was going through were normal. It made me feel like I was normal and I was able to rebound and regain my strength. I needed to be a positive example for my children, and I couldn't do that if I was struggling."

Having put the loss of his father behind him, Gray was once again forced to confront the harsh realities of death and grief. Before leaving for his current deployment he was notified by a member of his unit about the passing of a fellow security forces Airman with whom he had served during his 2012 deployment.

The pair had worked the night shift together, Gray serving as the assistant flight chief. As he does with all young security forces Airmen, Gray had reached out to offer guidance and mentorship. He was shocked to learn she had taken her own life.

"She was such a professional and had a great demeanor," Gray said. "I just knew that she was going to have a great career. You can pick up on things when you talk to people and they can leave an impact on you. That's what she did. I got to learn a lot about her.

“When the tragedy happened, I realized that I needed to do something. I was just so tired of hearing about losing military members to suicide,” he said. “That's when I came up with the idea of combining forces with mental health and sharing my story."

Two years after their deployment together, Gray has found himself back at the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. He is determined to be an instrument of compassion for his fellow Airmen. He recently combined efforts with Capt. Benjamin Carter of the 380th Expeditionary Medical Group to speak with security forces Airmen about mental health awareness at a recent commander's call. The talk was so successful that he was able to inspire other Airmen to reach out and share their struggles.

"Tech. Sgt. Gray is doing a great job setting a positive example of speaking up and seeking help," Carter said. "Unfortunately, too often we hear the negative statistics and not enough good-news stories. The more we realize that our peers are taking positive steps to cope with challenges, the more likely we will be to do the same. We want Airmen to take advantage of the many resources at their disposal, whether that be speaking with a supervisor, meeting with a Chaplain or mental health professional, or seeking relevant materials via Military OneSource. Anything that breaks down barriers to care is good news and I appreciate Tech. Sgt. Gray's help with that."

Through all of his trials, Gray remains firm that he never felt any disgrace in seeking help. He insists that if someone as seemingly strong as he can ask for help, there is never a reason to fear the stereotypes that may be associated with pursuing professional help.

"I think people look at me physically and say, 'Wow,' -- people call me Big Sarge," Gray said. "When I tell people my story, they say if this strong man can go through a storm and come out and say, 'Hey, I went and got help,' -- that has a powerful impact."
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