FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) — Just before sunset on Veterans Day, she sat next to her husband’s headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, reminding her three children how their father was with God in heaven and what it means to have faith.
Faith has kept Heather Gray moving forward. It’s what has gotten her through the grief and trials she faced after her husband, Maj. David Gray, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, on Aug. 8, 2012.
“It’s through those trials, through those hard times in life that you grow the most, that you learn more about yourself,” Heather said. “You learn more about yourself, about your friends, your community, more about your belief system.”
She met David in 1999, when she was 19 and attending Charleston Southern University in South Carolina. David was 27 and going through school to be commissioned after being enlisted as a joint terminal attack controller.
David commissioned in May 2001 and they married in August of that year. Assignments to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and Laughlin AFB, Texas, followed. In 2004, the couple welcomed their first child, Nyah.
A year later, David was assigned to a contingency response group at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The couple’s second child, Garrett, was born in 2006, and their youngest daughter, Ava, came along two years later. Six weeks after Ava was born, the family moved to Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
It was there David learned the Air Force was going to stand up the 13L career field, air liaison officer. ALO, according to the Career Field Education and Training Plan, “is the senior tactical air control party member who functions as the primary advisor to the ground commander on airpower.”
Previously, the designation was only available to rated (pilot, navigator, and air battle manager) officers. So despite having spent the bulk of his enlisted years in the TACP community, David was unable to serve as an officer in the career field he had loved so dearly. He had long been an advocate for the change. Heather remembers how excited David was, and how badly he wanted to lead the way for the newly acquired career field.
“He loved TACP. He truly believed the establishment of a dedicated career field was the best way for the community to foster strong officers with greater respect in the role of ALO,” Heather said. “It allowed them the opportunity to designate that as their job for the length of their career instead of having to leave their airframe and then return to it after a short stint as an ALO. I’m pretty sure he danced when he got picked up for the career field again.”
He attended the TACP schoolhouse at Hurlburt Field, Florida, for a second time and was the first Airman to have completed the course twice at the time.
The first time David went through the TACP three-level apprentice course as an enlisted member, then again as an officer.
“He had so much respect from the people in his community, having been enlisted in it and then being a champion for the 13L (ALO) career field,” she said.
Upon graduation in 2011, David was assigned to the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron at Fort Carson, Colorado.
It wasn’t long until his unit was tasked to deploy to Afghanistan.
“We hadn’t even unpacked our boxes yet,” Heather recalled.
That fall, David went to Nellis AFB, Nevada, for predeployment training and in February 2012, he deployed as D Flight commander with 24 men in his unit.
Aug. 8, 2012, and the days after
“I talked to David on the night of the seventh, so it would have been Aug. 8 for him,” Heather said.
Communication was typically spotty with video chat conversations cutting in and out. However, that night everything was just right.
“It was a perfectly crystal clear connection, he talked to every one of the kids,” Heather said, adding that it was a blessing to have the entire family “together” for that conversation.
That night David had complemented her on how nice she looked. Because the calls normally happened when she was leaving or returning from the gym, her hair was almost always in a ponytail. But that night she had just gotten her hair done and her husband noticed.
“That was the last conversation I had with him,” she said. “Back in college, our very first conversation came because he commented on my haircut. He had apparently noticed me from across the hall but never found anything to talk about until I cut my hair. I just realized right now that our first and last conversations were about my hair.”
As Heather got the kids and herself ready for bed that night, David went out on his last mission.
Retired Army Capt. Florent Groberg, a recent Medal of Honor recipient, was with David when he was killed and remembers the events of that day clearly.
“The night before we left, on Aug. 7, I walked out of the brigade building with him and — we were going to drop off laundry, actually — and he was telling me about how excited he was that he was living in Colorado,” Groberg said. “He was telling me about three little munchkins, and, you know, we just talked for a little bit. Just one of those conversations you have with a guy you’re serving with.”
Groberg said he and David, along with several other service members, were part of a security detail responsible for escorting 28 coalition and Afghan National Army personnel to Kunar Province for a weekly security meeting.
While on foot, his team members, which were configured in a diamond formation around the personnel they were protecting, were approached by a motorcycle diversion coming from the opposite direction. Soon after crossing a nearby bridge, two individuals dismounted from their motorcycles.
“We were targeted, and I identified the first suicide bomber. He was walking backwards parallel to our patrol and (I said) ‘What are you doing?’” Groberg recalled. “And so he did a 180 and cut through, so I left my position.”
Groberg recalled yelling at the individual and grabbing him, trying to get him away from his people. Army Sgt. Andrew Mahoney followed Groberg, pushing the individual out of the formation as far as possible and driving him into the ground. That’s when Groberg recalled seeing him detonate his vest.
David, along with Army Command Sgt. Maj. Kevin Griffin, Army Maj. Thomas E. Kennedy, and Ragaei Abdelfattah, a U.S. Agency for International Development foreign service officer, were killed in the blast.
Hours later, Heather heard a knock at the door. It was still early in the morning in Colorado, and she was in her pajamas preparing a care package for David, which would have included things for his upcoming birthday and their wedding anniversary. She was hoping the people at the door would go away.
They didn’t and Garrett eventually peeked out the window and whisper-shouted to his mother, “It’s a man in a hat.”
“So at that point I’m committed to opening the door,” Heather said. “I opened the front door and I saw three guys standing there. One was an enlisted guy that I didn’t recognize, and then the lieutenant colonel who was serving as the acting squadron commander … I recognized him. Then there was a chaplain but at the time, I didn’t necessarily realize that he was a chaplain.
“I just saw that he had this white piece of paper in his hand, just a single piece of paper, and he was kind of shaking a little bit.”
The men, who had on their dress blues, struggled to utter the prepared message they were sent to deliver, Heather said. Still unaware of what was happening, she tried to quickly process what was going on.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Who was it?”
Having been a key spouse since their time in New Jersey, Heather knew how important it was to ensure every spouse was taken care of and to be available if needed. So before David’s unit deployed she let the command know that if something were to happen to one of his men, she wanted to be a part of the notification team so she could help comfort the spouse.
Heather recalled how the lieutenant colonel finally said, “Heather, it was David.”
She said she just wasn’t putting the pieces together. Even as she slowly did, she was still in awe because it felt like she and her husband had just spoken with each other.
“I knew I was going (to) have to leave. I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next, but I knew there was going to be a process and I knew that I couldn’t tell (the kids) and then leave them,” she said.
She decided it was best for her children to stay in Colorado with another family. The three kids were unaware of their father’s death as Heather headed to Dover AFB, Delaware, where she would be present for David’s dignified transfer. The travel time allowed her to grieve and process her loss. She would also attempt to get used to the idea of now being a single parent.
She received David’s body on her birthday, Aug. 10, and flew back to Colorado the next day, still trying to figure out a way to tell her children.
“That was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That was harder than getting the news myself,” Heather said, as she teared up recalling how she told her children their father wouldn’t be coming home.
One of David’s escorts had brought back a little box, one that usually holds wet wipes, and told Heather he didn’t know what it was, but thought it was something she would like to have.
“Each kid had given David a small toy of theirs to take with him while he deployed and vice versa. It was one of those things where he gave something of his (for them) to hold onto with the understanding that they would give it back when he got home,” she said.
It was in this little box that the kids had put the toys for their dad.
“He was such a good dad. Anytime we would FaceTime, he would play with them,” she said. “My daughter had written on top of (the) box ‘daddy’s toys, only until he comes back.’ … And so that was how I told the kids, because I had this box.
“So when I came back on our anniversary and sat the kids down in the living room, I honestly didn’t even have to say much. Once they saw that box and they knew David wasn’t there, then it made it very real,” Heather recalled with tears in her eyes again. “And I told them, ‘he took care of it for you, he promised you he would and he did.’”
As daunting a task as it was, she said she was thankful for the way she was able to tell them.
“Even in the midst of all that, I was able to look at it and say ‘thank you God for these little things,’” she said. “(We’re) all asked to go through trials, but if we look, we’ll see the little things only God can provide that serve to remind us he is there.”
Following David’s death, Heather completed a devotional book last year, “Faith, Hope, Love and Deployment,” that she had started with David at the beginning of his deployment.
It’s something she credits to God, because she never set forth the goal of writing a book, but it all started with a trip to a Christian bookstore.
After running into a general in the store, and striking up conversation with him and his wife, she asked them if they had known of any good devotional books for military couples.
Unfamiliar with any type of book, she was told “well if there isn’t one, then you should just write one.”
A couple weeks later, Heather received a call from a chaplain who was assigned to help her write a book. The call caught her off guard, as she thought the topic of her writing a book wasn’t actually going to happen.
That evening she spoke with David, “You know that book that we were looking for, that couple’s devotional, specifically for deployment? Well, we’re going to write it.”
From then on, she started brainstorming about the challenges many spiritual military couples face during deployment, like communication, prayer, staying connected, and scripture memorization.
There’s also a section dedicated to letter writing, something she said she feels is a lost art. That she included this section in the book would turn out to also be another one of God’s blessings.
“I had David do the exercise that we were writing because I wanted (this) to be tried and true. I didn’t want to ask people to do something we wouldn’t feel comfortable doing,” she said. “As God would have it, there’s a part in there that asks the question, ‘why are you willing to lay your life on the line for (your) country, what would you say to your family members if you are called to make the ultimate sacrifice?’ I got that letter on the day of his funeral.
“In it, he quoted Isaiah 6:8, (and) he (wrote), ‘I feel like this is more than just a job for me, it’s a call to serve God, to serve my country, to serve my family.’ To this day I carry that letter with me,” Heather said.
She’s convinced there was a purpose for this and views it too as a huge blessing. In the aftermath, she went on to write sections of the book dealing with topics such as forgiveness, bitterness and trust. She said she was able to write with greater understanding and authority because of all she had been through and the decisions, some good some bad, she made following David’s death.
Dealing with grief
Just months after David’s death, Heather traveled to universities, overseas, churches, and many other organizations, giving her testimony on the trials she dealt with losing her best friend. Three months from the day he died, she was speaking at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“For a while it delayed my grief,” Heather said. “I poured into ministry, I poured into other people, (and) quite frankly, it became a façade; like ‘I’m OK, I’m good, I don’t need to deal with anything.’ Then the one-year mark hits, and everyone thinks I’m OK, (but I wasn’t), it was a very dark period.”
With her military family by her side, they saw those struggles and were there to support her.
“(They) rallied behind me and my faith. Coming out of the darkness, my faith had a whole new light to it. It was time to just press into a new found trust in God,” she said. “We’re not created to have everything that we need within ourselves; we’re created to be dependent on God, to be dependent on each other.”
After gaining the strength to see that her life wasn’t going where it should be, she surrendered to God again. She quit trying to understand and make sense of what happened to David, to accept what had been done and look forward to what she was being called to do next.
“When you have full reliance on him, you just quit trying to figure it out,” she said.
A widow of a service member is given a three-year time period to move at the Air Force’s expense.
For Heather and her children, 2015 meant their window to make a move would be closing.
“The idea of having to leave the last place that he lived with us, and know that wherever we ended up next would be a place he’s never been, was really kind of jarring for me. I couldn’t bear the idea of setting up a house without him,” she said.
In December 2014, Heather and her children had been in the Washington, D.C., area for the Wreaths Across America event at Arlington National Cemetery. While at a friend’s house, she joked with them and David’s brother, who was also in town, that she was just going to pack up the house, homeschool the kids, and travel. While originally a joke, she realized she probably knew enough people in the military that she could travel the country and never stay in a hotel.
In spring 2015, school was just finishing up, and Heather turned to God in a moment of near panic; the time had come to make a decision on what to do next.
“I know I can’t stay here anymore, I know it’s time,” she said.
She had an overwhelming desire to do what she always wanted to do. Just put her household goods in storage, go see the people she’s wanted to see and to just travel.
“I knew that what I wanted more than anything was to still be connected to my military family. I knew it sounded crazy but sometimes it takes a little crazy to have the courage you need to just take the next step on faith. Relying on God to provide.”
Over the summer, she logged more than 7,000 miles and stayed with service members or their families, many of whom she had never met before.
“Before he deployed, we had a very candid conversation and I said ‘if something happens to you what am I supposed to do?’” Heather said. “He said ‘I don’t know, but my guys will take care of you, God will provide and this community will take care of you.”
She put on social media her plans to travel from Colorado to D.C. in her first trek and that she was trying to stay with military families.
“It was the coolest thing ever. Within an hour of putting it on social media I had people all over the country responding, ‘my house is open. You’re always welcome in our home. Hey I’m not here but my best friend’s brother’s sister’s uncle is here and they’d love to host you guys,’” she recalled as she laughed. “While my kids were at church camp in Georgia with their cousins, I found myself on this epic road trip in my Jeep Wrangler. Stopping to pray with people in Wal-Mart parking lots and squadrons. Sleeping on stranger’s couches and floors and sharing meals with family I had never met.”
Along her first trip she stayed with families in Kansas, Tennessee and D.C. After spending a little bit of time at the Warrior Games in Quantico, Virginia, she received news that Ellie, an 8-year-old daughter of a family friend, had died after battling cancer. Her father, Kyle, had served with David and D Flight in Afghanistan.
Heather and the children flew back to Colorado to be with Kyle’s family. After a couple weeks they were on the road again, this time in the family minivan and taking an opportunity to visit family, friends and sightseeing along the way. They made stops in Montana, South Dakota, Texas and several others as they made their way to Heather’s family in South Carolina.
“That was really one of my goals, was just to be present with people. To see all those people that you say, ‘Oh I need to go see so and so or I need to call so and so’ and you never do,” she said. “I was like, I’m free to do it now.”
Along her journey with her children she witnessed numerous stories of caregiving, whether it be for a wounded service member, an elderly person, or the position in which she found herself in South Carolina.
That’s when she recognized the theme God was pressing onto her heart. Heather was scheduled to speak at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, in September. The topic was caregiving.
Along her travels, she had stayed with a couple where the wife had cervical cancer and her husband was her caregiver. She had watched Kyle and Rachel serve as Ellie’s primary caregivers and knew they had done everything possible to ensure Ellie had what she needed despite their own exhaustion.
During her brief visit to the Warrior Games, she saw service members care for fellow service members and the family members that care for America’s wounded warriors.
She reconnected with a college friend and learned he had stage 4 kidney disease. Heather has been doing everything she can to help out the family, taking him to appointments, picking up medication, just walking out life together. The position she now finds herself in she said is a true blessing. Not only do she and her kids bring new life to her friend, but with his background in education and his current inability to work while awaiting a transplant, he’s been able to help the family with home schooling.
“I didn’t realize (that) my crazy adventure of stepping out on faith was actually God’s perfect preparation. It had me spending all this time with caregivers, preparing for this speech and having an empathy for people in general, (but) now that’s kind of the role I’ve fallen into (and) I feel better prepared for it,” she said. “We are all caregivers. Caring for those around us. It’s what life is all about.”
When it comes down to it, Heather said the best way to care for caregivers is to just genuinely care, and to do whatever is possible to help ease the burdens they may be encountering.
“I want to teach my kids to appreciate life, to love (and) to serve others and to put that as the most important thing. Above the stuff that we get caught up in. Above our fear,” she said.
She finally feels like she’s where she needs to be, and as tough as the past few years have been, she’s very grateful for how she has grown in the process.
“I’m not afraid anymore; I think that was my biggest hindrance on moving forward. Fear of the unknown. Fear of my own failure,” Heather said. “The military is so good at dictating your life to you. Direction and guidance is helpful. But when it comes down to it, you are the only one who can take the next step. We all have that thing we know we need to do. The next thing. I think a lot of times we are waiting on some big trumpet to sound to kind of be a sign that it’s time for us to do it.
“But I would say God, some people might just say life, is a lot more subtle than that,” Heather continued. “Just do the next thing. You know, we’ll sit in a holding pattern forever if we’re waiting for the trumpets to sound.”
Editor’s note: This is the authentic story of an Air Force widow and how she has dealt with and continues to overcome adversity. The U.S. Air Force does not endorse any particular religion. The Air Force highly values each person’s right to observe the tenets of his or her respective religion or to observe no religion at all.