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Family missing a piece

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Breanna Gray acts the role of a bashful 7-year-old, but there's nothing timid in her voice when she sings:

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Sgt. 1st Class James Brandon Gray's widow, Tara, holds a portrait of her late husband as she stands with their children, Breanna and Brandon. The sergeant, 34, was struck and killed by a car May 22 in a hit-and-run incident on his motorcycle.  Sara Caldwell/Staff
Sara Caldwell/Staff
Sgt. 1st Class James Brandon Gray's widow, Tara, holds a portrait of her late husband as she stands with their children, Breanna and Brandon. The sergeant, 34, was struck and killed by a car May 22 in a hit-and-run incident on his motorcycle.


"There's a praise on the inside

That I can't keep to myself

A holler stirring up

From the depths of my soul ..."

It's a song she loved to sing with her father, James Brandon Gray, in the "singing battles" they would stage in the living room. It was the obvious selection for her to sing at Gray's funeral.

Gray, 34, was killed May 22. He was out for a motorcycle ride with a friend when he pulled over onto the shoulder to get a bug out of his eye.

A car struck him from behind then kept going, investigators said.

Its driver, Gerald Wright, has been indicted on two charges of first-degree homicide by vehicle: one for driving under the influence, the other for failing to stop and lend assistance or provide identifying information.

He also faces misdemeanor charges of following too closely and driving with an open container. Wright's arraignment is today.

Wright is out on a $25,000 bond. His attorney, Rodney Quesenberry, declined to comment on the case until the discovery process was complete.

Tara Gray is used to change after 15 years of living the topsy-turvy life of a soldier's wife. She learned to live apart from her husband after his tour in Iraq was extended from a year to 16 months. Nothing, though, could prepare her for that phone call May 22.

"Trying to be strong for my kids is really hard," Gray said as she tugged at the two wedding bands on her finger, one obviously bigger than the other. "I don't have my best friend anymore, my husband."

She met the soldier in 1996 at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division. He was broad-chested, a real catch. He made her a believer in love at first sight.

Two months into their relationship, he took her home to his native Buffalo, N.Y., to meet his grandparents, who had raised him. Five months after meeting, they were married.

"There was no rush; it just felt right," she said.

In 1998, they welcomed their son, James Brandon Gray Jr. He would become "Little Bran," his father, "Big Bran." Even a big, self-confident soldier gets the new-parent jitters, but Gray said the joy of holding his son quickly conquered any fears.

Breanna Tiara Gray arrived in 2004. Her father wanted a daughter next, so his son would have someone to protect. As she grew older, the father and daughter wrestled on the floor, shot hoops, sang songs. There was a line, though.

"My daddy didn't play with dolls," Breanna said.

At work, Brandon Gray was a reserved but confident leader, "silent but deadly," as his widow puts it. He always maxed out the Army's physical fitness test with the muscles he packed onto a 6-foot-2 frame. His leadership skills and ambition allowed him to climb the ranks over 17 years with blinding speed. When he died, he held the rank of sergeant first class.

He was stern but fair; the welfare and safety of his soldiers came first. During his tour in Iraq, Gray devised a piece of equipment for the company's trucks that would trigger a buried explosive before the truck passed over it.

"If his soldiers are going to get out there, he's going to be right there with them," Tara Gray said. "A lot of people looked up to him."

Out of uniform, Brandon Gray was more relaxed, a jokester and easygoing. For a man his size, he was surprisingly agile and talented on the basketball court. He used that knowledge to coach 10- and 12-year-old boys and girls at Fort Gordon.

He was the president of the Dominant Breed Motorcycle Club, which split time between rides and community service projects. The members all agreed: They looked up to him as a leader.

"He demanded respect and gave you respect," said Mark "Taz" McKinney.

Marcus "Sleepy" Woolfolk called Gray a pioneer and a leader.

"He didn't just talk to you and tell you the right thing to do, he actually did it" as a soldier, motorcycle rider, brother and father, Woolfolk said.

Tara Gray said there's no comparison between the absence of her husband on deployment and his final departure. It was devastating being separated for that long during the deployment, but at least there was a chance to talk with him on the phone, she said.

Now, even that is taken away.

"We're a tight-knit family," she said. "The four of us were real close."

Staff Writer Luke Thompson contributed to this article.

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Craig Spinks
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Craig Spinks 07/30/11 - 01:29 am
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Chalk another tragedy up to

Chalk another tragedy up to impaired driving. Mr.Wright had best hope that Mr. Quesenberry is Perry Mason, F. Lee Bailey and Johnny Cochran rolled into one. Otherwise, Wright's future will be about as sanguine as that of a pig dropped into a pit of hungry alligators.

My condolences to the Gray family.

kleahey1
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kleahey1 07/30/11 - 03:57 am
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Condolences to the Gray

Condolences to the Gray family... while Bran may not be here with you physically, he will always be here in your heart and within the joyous memories you've shared.

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