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Kunar Province, Afghanistan – “I can say that I’ve led this platoon into more ambushes than any other point man here on this deployment,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Nathaniel S. Gray with a toothy grin and 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. Ya 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.”Gray, assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Slack, is now 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, MS, a town about the same size as Asadabad, the capital of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 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 3rd Brigade Combat Team for 15 months.
Now, 10 months into a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan with 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?,” said Gray 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.”
One of the main reasons Gray has stayed in the Army is because of his two sons. He is able to care for them, but they also look up to and admire him for being a Soldier.
“They want camouflage stuff, ya know they’re 5,” Gray said with a smile. “They want the G.I. 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.”
“The Army changed my life a lot,” Gray 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, he plans on going to college and walking into one more ambush: being swarmed by children.
“I want to be a kindergarten teacher,” Gray 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,” added Gray. “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.
Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell was born Jan. 8, 1981 in Chicago. He is currently a U.S. Army Reserve photojournalist team leader assigned to the 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment in Cary, N.C. As a team leader, he is attached to the public affairs office, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division based out of eastern Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Base Fenty.
Burrell derives pleasure from shooting compelling photos of fellow Soldiers in order to tell their stories. As an Army storyteller, he tries to view situations differently than other journalists. He attempts to bring emotion and art out of the daily and sometimes mundane task of being a Soldier. As the Soldier’s motto is: Long periods of boredom followed by brief periods of excitement – Burrell has been there for both to capture the moments that make history.
He was named the Army Journalist of the year 2010 and the Army Reserve Military Journalist of the Year for 2009 & 2010, won numerous Keith L. Ware awards for military journalism and was awarded a Combat Action Badge for his coverage of Soldiers under enemy fire.
His photos have appeared in USA Today, Reuter’s, Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal and myriad other publications throughout the world. Yet, he continues to seek the difficult missions where his Armed Forces brethren are in harm’s way.
Topics101st Airborne Division, Afghanistan, Asadabad, Fort Campbell KY, Kunar Province, Mark Burrell, Mississippi, Nathaniel S. Gray, Screaming Eagles, Shigal Valley, Task Force Bastogne, Task Force No Slack, Tupelo MS
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