THE STORIES

“SOMETIMES, IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE THE
PURPOSE. BUT MY TBI HELPED ME FIND NEW LIFE."

- BOB GRAY
LIVING WITH MENTAL HEALTH ILLNESS

BOB GRAY

Would you give your life for someone you love? A child? A spouse? A partner? Without hesitation, you would.

There is no question when you picture the faces of people you love. It’s a basic truth for many. And yet, it does not explain why first responders would do the same for faces they may never know – faces they would not recognize when they run into a burning building, or shield a bystander from a bullet. The gracious gift from everyday heroes who choose to protect and serve can be costly for them and their families. Remembering victims who did not survive a horrific accident is delicately balanced with the relief and gratitude one feels from rescuing a child from a burning home.

When Bob Gray first became a firefighter, he knew of the long-standing expectation that public servants would be courageous. They would be tough – mentally and physically. However, in 1999, as Bob was rising through the ranks at the Arlington County Fire Department (ACFD), he and his peers recognized that traumatic experiences would live with them forever. Using the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Program as a foundation, the fire department and EAP initiated a groundbreaking training program for the entire department to build resilience and teach coping mechanisms to help them process stressful and difficult experiences. As the training gained momentum, Bob recognized that “opening up and talking about our experiences – telling our stories – made a big difference.” When the initial training concluded, they were happy with the results and challenged themselves to advance it further. They could not have imagined how essential it would be to their survival in September 2001.

Every member of Bob’s crew, and many others from ACFD, responded to the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Words do not describe the graphic horror they experienced.

“We searched for anything and everything to help identify victims,” Bob shared. “We thought of those who died in the crashes, and the innocent casualties who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression consumed many of them as they meticulously searched for remains that would bring certainty and peace to victims’ families.

Knowing the good it had done before, the crew leaned on their program and worked through their PTSD. By the end of 2003, ACFD was able to proudly report that only 15 of the 315 heroes had retired due to exposures related to the Pentagon event. And if that was the end of Bob’s story, it would have been remarkable. But, in some ways, it was a beginning. At the time, Bob did not know that an accident would force him to relive those days after September 11 again and again.

It was supposed to be a simple home improvement project. A catastrophic fall from a ladder in 2011 was a life-changing event that initially had doctors believing that Bob would never speak again. His traumatic brain injury (TBI) would lead to permanent cognitive and communicative challenges. That dismal diagnosis wasn’t acceptable to Bob. “All of my memories were gone. I had to fight to get each memory back,” Bob explained.

Rehabilitation meant tough physical work, but it was nothing compared to the mental and emotional work. Bob began rebuilding his cognitive skills from a kindergarten level. He fought to regain his memories and then put them back in the right place. Retrieving them meant reliving his best of times and worst of times. “Eventually, I recalled the memories from my time at the Pentagon. Reliving them was painful, but I got them back in the right place.”

When Bob recalls his PTSD, battles with depression and stress, he speaks of the actions that helped him heal. He believes that exercise is essential: “Cycling helped me process memories from the Pentagon. I actually bought the bike on September 11, 2003 as a ‘therapist’ because I couldn’t get rid of my thoughts and dreams depicting the Pentagon as a haunted house. I visualized it the way I saw it in my dreams. And I rode for hours – remembering and re-experiencing the worst things I saw.”

Thanks to his work with Project Rebirth and Ride 2 Recovery, Bob now cycles across the country, telling his story along the way. To Bob, telling his story is an equally important element of his healing.

“There is a stigma with depression and PTSD. People don't talk about it. We must take steps to change our culture and create a system that reaches people. PTSD is a great example of an invisible injury. It’s hard to care for people when you can’t see them hurting. Changing the culture will encourage people to talk about their stress and depression. They’ll tell you about their personal, private injury. It reminds me of fighting fires. If you open the window and let someone tell his or her story, they’ll breathe again.”

“There are reasons things happen,” Bob shared. “Sometimes, it is hard to imagine the purpose. But my TBI helped me find new paths to help others.”

“People who serve are all wired similarly,” Bob continued. “All of us are willing to risk our lives for people we have never met. Even though I’ve retired from firefighting, I want to keep helping others.”