RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- As a teenager, Airman 1st Class Michael Gray, 86th Security Forces Squadron patrolman, had to support himself. Gray had to pay for everything, from the clothes on his back to the food he ate and even his grades.
Gray owed more money to his parents than he actually had, so at times he had to go without food in order to pay his debts. "My story starts before I was born; my mother was raped," Gray said. "She never told anyone about it. I never knew why, but I think it was something she couldn't get through."
Nine months after she was raped, Gray was born and became the newest edition to a family that already had three children. "After about three years and some issues my mother was going through, she was charged with child abandonment," Gray said. "She was dealing with a lot of problems, possibly because of her marriage and the fact that I wasn't her husband's child." Gray was then sent to foster care. After living with a few different families, he was eventually adopted by the Gray family, who gave him his last name. "There were a lot of complications that came with me changing families so often before I was adopted," Gray said. "I had problems speaking ; I didn't like to talk unless I had to. Whenever I did talk, nobody could understand me." When Gray began school, he was placed in an English as a second language courses to improve his speech. "It took a few years, but since that class I've been able to communicate better, and since then I haven't stopped talking," he said. But for all the social improvements he made, Gray still had other criticisms to deal with. "The Gray family didn't really know how to handle me," he said. "Maybe because it was the first time they had a son or maybe they didn't know how to relate with me. "Whenever I was punished, I had to go to my room and write pages as punishment. For me, it was just life," Gray said. "They would give me a sentence that I would have to write enough times to fill 10 pages. Unfortunately, as a younger kid, I didn't have the attention span to do that, so the additional punishment would be to add five pages." As the page count increased, so did the time spent in his room. Bouncing between the classroom and his bedroom made it difficult to form friendships. As Gray got older, beatings coincided to go along with the pages he had to write as punishment. In middle school, a friend noticed and reported Gray's situation to a teacher.
"One of my friends brought my situation up to a teacher after a presentation about abuse, and the teacher pulled me aside and asked me a few questions," Gray said. "I told the teacher it wasn't like that, that it wasn't that bad and we were part of a more physical household. I didn't know any better." At age 16, Gray got a job, which provided an escape from the abusive household.
"Eventually, when I was 16 I heard about a friend who couldn't get a job because she was a year too young. I went to the ice cream shop she wanted to apply for and asked for an application," the Houston native said. "I didn't know it at the time, but I spoke to the hiring manager who had already decided to give me the job because I walked there in the rain." The new job added variation to Gray's routine. He now went to work, attended school, and returned to his room. "Around that time I joined a program called (Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), which might have been the best choice I had made at that time," he said. "The program instilled different values in me. I wanted to look good at school, and I wanted to represent my school by participating in the drill teams. Being on those teams taught me how to depend on other people my age."
In addition to those values, the program also gave Gray three different father figures to look up to. "Who I was started to change. I was more confident," Gray said. "I was doing more things with my time, and with my job came some money in my pocket."
But what goes up must come down. "My parents saw these changes in my life and didn't like it," Gray said. "They decided I was spending too much time away from home, so they imposed new rules. I had to pay for everything from my school uniforms to my food." With these new restrictions in place, Gray found himself without much money. He started to get more hours at work to remedy the situation. "My manager was OK with this, because she knew I loved to work," Gray said. "I was the only person who would take other people's shifts at work, not only for the money but (also) I didn't want to go home. "
Gray's parents saw that their punishment wasn't having an effect on him, so more rules followed. For every grade Gray received that was below an A, he was fined $50. This took a big toll on him and he didn't have the money to eat anymore. His manager gave Gray the hours she could, but then Gray's parents decided they didn't like him walking home in the dark, he said. So his hours at work were reduced. "One positive side effect of me not being home was that the beatings stopped, and I took it for granted," Gray said. "I had a little more self-respect and a little more pride in myself. But because I had my hours reduced at work, the beatings came back. It knocked me back down a peg or two." Fewer hours at work meant less money, but Gray's parents didn't cancel his debts. "I didn't have money for food and one day my manager caught me taking food from the trash," he said. "She told me to never do that again and to ask her if I needed something to eat. She said she'd pay for it herself. "After that incident she gave me whatever hours she could - before school, after school, weekends. Whenever I could be there, I was," Gray added. "At the same time I was going through all of that, AFJROTC was helping as well. I had good friends now, which is something I had a hard time with."
Since Gray was having issues at home, an instructor suggested Gray join the military. He called the Army recruiter book appointment.
"I decided to join the Army, but after talking to a recruiter, he said he wouldn't take me because I was a catch-22, because of my past," Gray said. "Around the time I was talking to the recruiter, my parents added another rule. As soon as I turned 18, I wasn't going to live under their roof anymore."
Gray didn't know what to do. The Army wouldn't take him and he still had to finish high school. His instructors pushed him to call the Air Force recruiter.
The recruiter didn't get back to him until the day before his 18th birthday.
"Since it was about to be my 18th birthday, I had to find a new place to live," Gray said. "Thankfully, another cadet talked to his parents for me and welcomed me into their home. They treated me like I was one of their own. "Looking back on my life, I realized that the people I had met along the way helped me through my situation," Gray continued. "When something went wrong, they were there for me. I wouldn't have made it here if it weren't for them." Gray left for basic training the day after his high school graduation.
"It was the worst graduation party of my life, but I'm OK with it because I wouldn't have it any other way," he said. Gray has been in the military for just over a year. His past experiences have helped him communicate, work with people and build his confidence. That experience has made him not only a better person, but also a better Airman.