By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL -- After three deployments, Maj. Amy Gray, U.S. Army Reserves, is back home in Woodstock. She made a stop at Randolph-Macon Academy on Thursday afternoon to speak to students about her experiences in Afghanistan as an occupational therapist.
During her stay in Afghanistan, Gray said she received close to 1,000 letters from R-MA students, and that is why she said she felt compelled to visit with them.
Gray, 47, came home to her husband and three children about six months ago after a 15-month stay in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. There, she worked in a concussion care center and helped soldiers recovering from traumatic brain injuries and other similar ailments. She also occasionally worked with people from the local community.
"Occupational therapy focuses on mental health ... things dealing with the activities of daily living," she said. "I helped retrain people on how to do things in a new way."
Gray said that traumatic brain injuries remain one of the most common injuries in the military field, and treatment for it has only recently been put into practice. She noted the best way to ensure recovery from a concussion is rest.
"The most common way for a soldier to get a concussion is probably from vehicle-borne IED blasts or vehicle rollovers," she said.
While Gray said she never had to use her weapon or was put into a combat position, she did suffer some hearing loss while overseas. She said one of the scarier moments she remembers is when a truck loaded with explosives blew up just a half mile from where she was.
"No matter where you were there, you had to stay aware of who was behind you, what was above you, everything that surrounded you," she said. However, she noted that a majority of the time she felt perfectly safe, knowing that American soldiers were there to protect her.
"I worked with soldiers from all kinds of places, so I mean it when I say that our service members are the greatest in the world," she said.
The process of coming home has proven to be "quite an adjustment" for Gray.
"You have to be and think a certain way when you're over there," she said. "And then you come home, just get hit with life ... you can't just come back and unwind and go back to how you used to be right away."
"If you didn't pray before deployment, you would pray during deployment," she said, speaking about certain things she had witnessed in Afghanistan.
After helping different service members, many of them began calling her "mom," Gray said, and would actually come back to her workstation just to visit.
"When you're deployed with a unit, everyone's your friend," she said.
Gray was able to talk to her family once a week, and admitted that for the most part she kept it that way because talking to them only made her miss them more. However, she started a hobby of making blankets, scarves and hats, as well as 550 cord, or parachute cord, bracelets to send home to her family.
While she enjoyed making the items, Gray said the process of creating the different things was a method of therapy for soldiers recovering from injuries, like concussions.
"My profession is based on purposeful activity," she said. "Making these things was a great way to keep the soldiers' minds off what was going on around them."
Gray showed R-MA students one particular blanket that she had made for her son that she sent home to him with a note telling him that he could wrap himself in it, like he would in one of her hugs. At the end of her presentation, she provided students with 550 cord and showed them how to make bracelets out of them, as a "thank you" for contacting her while she was deployed.
Even though Gray said the transition period between deployment and home was tough, she said she wouldn't change the way her life has panned out.
"I've been away from home three years out of the past 10," she said. "But if I'm asked, I will go."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org