In the days after Maj. David Gray’s death on Aug. 8, his wife, Heather, wanted to be bitter that her husband had been taken from her.
“I came to (God) with the raw emotion of ‘I’m really angry. I don’t like that I’m going to Dover, Delaware, to receive my husband’s body on my birthday,’” said Gray, 32. “I really questioned what God had in store. I wanted to get angry and let bitterness seep in, but I felt like the Lord was telling me this was not the end.”
David, who was killed at age 38 by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, is the only commissioned officer from the Air Force ROTC program to die in combat, according to Charleston Southern University records. The Grays were in the class of 2002.
Heather Gray, who lives in Colorado Springs, was in town Wednesday to speak at Charleston Southern, where her love story with David began.
She has formed Finish Strong Ministries, a nod to the words David said to her as they completed their first 5K race together: “It isn’t how well you run the race that matters,” he said. “Just finish strong.”
She was comforted by those words in the days after his death and has made it her motto as she shares her story.
“Someone told me recently that the Lord only gives stories to those willing to tell them,” she said.
This week, she brought their children, Nyah, 9, Garrett, 6, and Ava, 4, to visit for the first time at the university where their parents met.
She showed them the brick inscribed “Where we met — DG*HP — Forever” in front of Lightsey Chapel next to the reflection pond. It was to be a gift from her to him for their 11th anniversary, but he died three days too soon.
In 1999, Heather Pipkin was a pretty, fair-skinned blonde teen from Simpsonville in her sophomore year. David Gray was a dark and handsome 27-year-old from Loganville, Ga., who had already done a stint in the Air Force before college.
In notes they passed in convocation — a college requirement now called Chapel — she called him “old,” she said, but still hoped he would ask her out.
He later proposed under the Folly Beach pier, and they were married at Citadel Square Baptist Church on Aug. 11, 2001. They grew in faith together. When he died, they were writing, together, a devotional for deployed couples.
In 2005, David was underwater for 6 minutes during a training exercise and nearly drowned. Medical professionals said he wouldn’t survive, but Gray bargained with God for one more day with her husband.
“The Lord gave me seven more years and so when that death notification came and changed everything for me, I kind of knew in my heart even though I wanted to be bitter, God had fulfilled his promise,” she said. “He had given me seven years and two more children, and so I couldn’t be bitter. In the Bible, seven is the number of completion and I really believe that God knew that David’s life was complete at that moment.”
In the days after David’s death, she asked God for signs that He was there for her and was “bowled over” by the response, she said.
First, her family’s military liaison, a self-described atheist, gave her a card with a Bible verse, Isaiah 6:8: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’” He said it reminded him of David.
She later found a coin among David’s military tokens with the same verse, and then, in the receiving line at her husband’s visitation, a stranger pressed an identical coin into her hand.
Finally, on the day of the funeral, a letter from David arrived. In it, David explained why he was willing to lay his life on the line for his country, quoting Isaiah 6:8.
“I’m here to tell you that it is a conscious decision that you have to make to be strong,” she said. “So look for what God is doing in your life, and if you just ask Him, he will show you all of these things. He’s not afraid to blow you away with the ways that He wants to hold your heart and heal you and help you overcome whatever it is you’re going through.”