From fighting fires to fighting for his life, Addison resident Robert “Bob” Gray is no stranger to traumatic situations. Gray shared with us his experiences as an Arlington County, Virginia firefighter, his recovery from a severe brain injury that left him temporarily paralyzed, and his passion for helping first responders to better understand behavioral health issues. His miraculous story is heartbreaking and will inspire you to live your best life, without fear—just like Gray does every day.
It all started in 1980. Gray was an average 17-year-old high school senior who couldn’t decide what to do with his life. His father, a captain in the Air Force at that time who later became a colonel, worked at the Pentagon. He was so passionate about fire and EMS work that he started a volunteer fire department in Florida; because of him, Gray decided to become a volunteer firefighter. A year later, Gray was hired full time at the Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD). “My dad introduced me to firefighting and I absolutely loved it,” said Gray. “When I found out I could pursue a career in what I loved to do as a volunteer, I couldn’t believe it!”
Twenty years later, Gray had worked his way up from a firefighter to a paramedic and finally as a captain. He also was team leader of the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and ACFD technical rescue team (TRT) and Collapse Team programs. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Gray was leading the CISM Team to support ACFD personnel dealing with stress, by working to enhance behavioral health programs with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). This work later proved critical in assisting ACFD members during and after the response to the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, which is in Arlington County jurisdiction. After the attacks, Gray and Dodie Gill, president/CEO of New Millennium and former ACFD EAP director, led the transition of the CISM program to the highly specialized Traumatic Experience Recovery Program.
Like every American, 9/11 was a life-changing experience for Gray. “It started as a beautiful fall day,” he said. “September is one of the most beautiful times of the year in Virginia, and people often mention how blue the sky was on that day.” Gray had woken up early and was attending a morning briefing sessions with four other TRT captains and an FBI Terrorist Task Force leader, who was getting pages about the first attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. He didn’t know what was happening other than a plane had struck the building. After his third page, the meeting ended and everyone headed back to work. On the way out, they saw CNN video footage of the second plane striking the South tower. Outside, they could see smoke rising in the air, from where the Pentagon was also struck.
“Once I reached the Pentagon, the situation was surreal to say the least,” explained Gray. “The Pentagon is the largest office building in the country, with five floors that are each about 14 feet tall. I led a team of seven firefighters to fight the fire. Ever since then, I have been asked what I would rate the fire on a scale of 1-10. My answer has always been 350. It compares to nothing—the amount of fire, the heat involved (some areas were beyond 2000 degrees Fahrenheit), jet fuel burning, areas destroyed by the explosion.”
At the end of September 12, Gray was assigned as a Collapse Team leader to prevent secondary collapse of the structure.
“This type of event was really never expected,” added Gray. “It definitely took a physical and emotional toll on our fire department, police department and community. Our experience was compounded by physical issues caused by exposure to asbestos, jet fuel and silicon matter, especially to the collapse teams. We were working 12-hour shifts every day. We had stuff to protect our respiratory systems, but we were still chewing on grit the whole time. Most of us fought respiratory and emotional issues for about a year and a half afterward. Thankfully, the preparation we did prior to 9/11 helped people prepare emotionally for this type of event, and many of us stayed on the job and with the fire department after.”
In January 2011, Gray retired as Battalion Chief of the ACFD. At that time, him and his wife, Lesli, his daughter, Olivia, and his son, Max, moved to McKinney, Texas to be closer to family. However, Gray’s peaceful retirement didn’t last long. On March 7, 2011, he fell from a ladder in the foyer of his home, which resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury. His daughter found him on the floor and called 9-1-1, who flew him to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where he had surgery to reduce the pressure in his brain. When the firefighters, EMS and paramedics arrived, he was in respiratory arrest and not breathing. After a three-week coma, he woke up and didn’t recognize or remember anything.
“It’s like I was missing mentally,” said Gray. “I had to relearn speaking, eating and drinking while fighting out of a paralysis of the right side of my body. After returning home, I didn’t recognize anybody for about two months after my injury, when I was finally able to regain consciousness enough to realize where I am and what’s going on.”
When his memories started returning, he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as his most vivid memories were from 9/11 and other fires—memories that he had previously stored so they wouldn’t have too much of an affect on his everyday life. After about four years after his injury, he was able to ride his bike again, which played a huge part in his recovery.
“I wanted to get better for myself and my family,” he said. “I learned the importance of fighting for every aspect of recovery during my rehab. I wanted to get things back together and not have to rely on absolutely everybody. My wife told me that the doctors at my initial surgery told her that if I survived, I would end up in a nursing home the rest of my life. I wanted to fight my way out of that. I’m a very independent person and it was important to me to not be such a burden on my family. Unfortunately, many people with brain injuries don’t receive the treatment or rehab they need; I feel very fortunate to be where I am today.”
More details about Gray’s fascinating life can be found in his book, “Never Say Never, Never Give Up: Encountering the Unthinkable, Fighting for Recovery and Committing Service to Others,” which will be released in March 2019 as part of Brain Injury Awareness Month. The book started with notes that he made during recovery, time spent writing after recovery and help from family and friends.
In addition, Gray has previously worked with Project Rebirth, a nonprofit organization that works to prepare military personnel, first responders, health workers and community leaders to deal with disasters. Through film content, teaching tools and programs, Project Rebirth provides guidance through grief and traumatic loss to help build emotional and psychological resilience. Gray starting working with this organization before retiring from ACFD, where he served as a Project Rebirth Senior Advisor, to lead the First Responders Resiliency Network. Gray also partners with Ride 2 Recovery and the September 11 Memorial and Museum (where his gear is on display) to help first responders and military members.
Now, Gray and his family live in Addison. After attending an event at Addison Circle in 2015 with his wife, they were both reminded so much of an area in Arlington. “The Town is so close to the city, with so much good communication and so many people—we fell in love with it!” he said. Now he enjoys spending time with family, writing, bike riding, vehicle restoration, fishing, playing the saxophone and doing art.
“Recovery from a traumatic event is a journey,” said Gray. “Don’t hesitate to ask for help—that’s part of courage. Accept changes and move forward. I hope my story will help others deal with traumatic events. It isn’t easy on the person affected, or their family and friends, but it is possible to move forward. I hope my book and work can positively impact behavioral health issues that first responders deal with every day.”
Learn more about Gray, or invite him to speak with individuals or organizations about behavioral health issues, by contacting him at RTGray105@yahoo.com.