KUNAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — “I can say that I’ve led this platoon into more ambushes than any other point man here on this deployment,” Army Sgt. Nathaniel S. Gray said with a toothy grin and a slow, southern accent.
“I was point man for the first six, seven months here,” he continued. “I walked us into a lot. I can smell it, but I don’t know where it’s at. I know it’s going to happen. Every time we were walking, I was looking for my next covered and concealed position. You know, I’d look at this rock, then that rock. ‘Oh, there’s another rock, that’s where I’m going.’ I just never knew when it was going to happen.”
|Army Sgt. Nathaniel S. Gray scans the mountainside during a combat operation in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, March 16, 2011. Gray is on his third combat tour. |
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell
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Gray, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s Company B, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, now is a squad leader and has an uncanny knack for getting himself and his team out of tight spots. Even before joining the Army, Gray found ways out of potentially hairy situations.
He grew up in Tupelo, Miss., a town about the same size as Asadabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s Kunar province, where he now patrols. As a teenager, he watched war movies and idolized the men in those action roles who wore Screaming Eagle patches on their shoulders.
“If you see TV or movies, who wouldn’t choose the 101st?” Gray said. “If you see ‘Hamburger Hill,’ with those dudes charging up the side of a mountain, who wouldn’t want to do that?”
After returning from his first combat tour in Iraq, he quickly joined the 101st Airborne Division and deployed again to Iraq with the division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team for 15 months.
Now, 10 months into a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, Gray stares out of his makeshift fighting position into the Shigal Valley. “You see something?” another soldier asked. “Ah, it’s just dead trees.”
“Make sure you know where it’s coming from before you shoot, know what I mean?” Gray said to the soldier. “I expect a rocket-propelled grenade to come from that ridgeline over there.”
It was quiet for a few minutes as the soldiers scanned the ridges with their weapons. Then Gray said, “Actually, it’s my sons’ birthdays today.”
Jacob and Joseph, twins, turned 5 years old March 16. Gray said he sent home a bow and arrow set for their presents. He started laughing. “Last time I was home, one of them was walking around the gas station we were at singing the Pledge of Allegiance,” Gray said. “I thought that was pretty cool.”
Gray said his sons are one of the main reasons he has stayed in the Army. He is able to care for them, he added, but they also look up to and admire him for being a soldier. “They want camouflage stuff — you know, they’re 5,” he said with a smile. “They want the GI Joe backpack, and I think that’s pretty cool.” Then he explained the difference between being a squad leader and a father.
“Over here, a squad leader is more difficult than taking care of kids,” Gray explained. “Here, you have to check to make sure their magazines are full, their [combat optics] are tied down — you have to check everything. Small things have bigger consequences over here.” Since joining the Army, Gray said, he has learned it’s the little things that count.
“The Army changed my life a lot,” he said. “It kind of distilled something in me. I started doing the right thing. I respect myself more, and I respect others more.” After dodging as many more ambushes as he can in his three years left in the military, Gray said, he plans on going to college and walking into one more ambush: being swarmed by children.
“I want to be a kindergarten teacher,” he said. The fighting position on the mountain was quiet for a moment, and then erupted with muffled laughter from his troops. “Everybody laughs, but that’s what I want to do,” Gray said. “I love kids.”
A few days later, back home in Mississippi, Jacob and Joseph got a phone call. Their dad was on the line, far away from them, but reassuring them that he found a safe route off the mountain.
Gray has a certain knack for that.
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