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JBLM Soldier wakes up to new life, journey

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When he woke up, 17 days had vanished. The last thing Sgt. Nino Gray remembered was riding in his Stryker in Afghanistan, on the way to deal with youths damaging a Hesco barrier. Now, he found himself in a hospital bed halfway around the world with his mom and one-year-old son Jayden by his side.

"I thought I was dead; I thought I was in some crazy coma... it took about a week to believe what was going on," said Gray, a Soldier with Alpha Company.

The injuries he figured out in the hospital; he had a traumatic brain injury and substantial wounds in his right leg, which now had an external fixture on it and two plates and 17 pins inside it.

What caused the injuries he found out later by talking to his squad who were still in Afghanistan at their outpost about 40 miles east of Kandahar. Through them, he pieced together what happened on Sept. 24, 2010, as they were on a security patrol for engineers creating a chokepoint with barriers.

On their way to check on the damaged barrier, as they drove into their makeshift road of a dried-up river bed, Gray's lead vehicle hit a 400-pound improvised explosive device. The force of the explosion slammed his head against the blast shield and threw him out of the hatch; the Stryker flipped, crushing his right leg.

Only one other Soldier in his squad sustained injuries. "I was the worst injury, and that's the way I'd rather have it, too," he said.

Medevac flights landed him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Once awake, regret seeped in for leaving his squad behind.

"Guilt for a while was a big part of my life," said Gray. He dealt with it better when his Soldiers reminded him that they were all alive, that they followed his training.

"They let me know that I did my job," Gray said. "I felt like I messed up, but they were proud of me."

Long road to recovery
From that first week at Walter Reed, Gray stubbornly sought out greater independence; it started with him crawling towards his wheelchair when his mom left the room. "I just felt alive again, you know," he said.

Over the next several months, Gray pushed himself to get out of bed, to propel himself in a wheelchair, and to graduate to crutches. By August, he started to walk without any assistance.

Gray went through a mental journey as well. In December 2010, shortly after he joined the Warrior Transition Battalion here, Gray said he went through a low point that he later called a turning point- sorting out issues of acceptance and of what type of father he wanted to be.

"I always saw my son playing basketball when he was 12 years old, and I never wanted to be that guy who had to sit in a wheelchair while his son was playing basketball," Gray said.

Since then, his son became his source of inspiration to push himself in his recovery.

"It was just crazy how something so small could give you so much strength... I have no doubt that I'm where I'm at because of him," said Gray.

He also shifted how he thought about his injuries.

"I wasn't able to change the injury, but I was able to change the dealing with it," he said.

Gray is now on his way out of the Army, with hopes of getting a position with the Wounded Warrior Project and of creating a new life with his fiancé, Tasha.

He wants to advocate for other wounded servicemembers, to help guide them in their own recoveries. Gray still recalls how scared he was when he woke up, wondering what was going to happen next.

"When someone else wakes up like that, I want to be the one to walk through there with a limp, with a TBI, and tell them, ‘Not only will you get through this and make it, but I'm going to help you. I'm living proof,'" he said.

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