Called to Duty: Rainbow's Jessica Gray Serves Her Country, Family, and Patients
Called to Duty: Rainbow’s Jessica Gray Serves Her Country, Family, and Patients
by: Kenyon Kemnitz
When she’s not serving her hospice patients and their families, Jessica Gray is serving her country. It’s something Jessica Gray has been doing for 19 years. Over half her life.
Balancing a full-time job, along with the responsibilities of being a wife and mother, can be challenging for anyone. Throw in Jessica’s time as a weekend warrior in the Wisconsin Army National Guard and two words come to mind – exhausting and overwhelming.
But Jessica always seems to have a smile on her face. It’s her caring attitude and warm personality that has endeared her to her patients, their families, and her co-workers since she joined the Rainbow Hospice Care team as a social worker in August 2021.
“It’s funny when someone says, ‘Oh you’re taking off from work and I’m like, well, not really,’” said Gray. “Sometimes I work two to three weeks in a row because of military commitments, but I enjoy it, so that makes it easier, and I enjoy my job at Rainbow too.”
Jessica was a senior at Merrill High School when she decided to enlist in the National Guard. After she enrolled in college, Jessica completed basic training and Advanced Individual Training (AIT), which prepares soldiers with the in-depth and hands-on training they need to perform various Army jobs.
“I remember my first day of basic training and just looking at my battle buddy and saying, ‘what did I get myself into?!’ Gray said. “But then I did it and I take immense pride in the amazing things I did, like running obstacle courses, and doing more pushups than I’ve ever been able to do. You just kind of get into a motion and do it.”
She continued to be active in the Guard while she completed her undergraduate degree at UW-Eau Claire.
A month after her college graduation in December 2008, Jessica was deployed to Iraq, along with the rest of the 32nd Infantry Brigade in Wisconsin, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She spent a year working in detaining operations and was a part of a unit that ran a detention facility doing intelligence work. She worked a lot with interpreters and became fairly good at reading and speaking Arabic.
Not having some of the comforts of home was an adjustment, but Jessica learned to adapt quickly.
“Communication has come a long way since then,” Gray said. “Skype was the big thing and you got to call home once in a while. The internet wasn’t always working. But when you’d get a letter or a care package with fun stuff like Girl Scout cookies, books, magazines, and Skittles, that would make your day.”
The hot and humid days of a Wisconsin summer don’t seem that bad anymore when compared to the scorching temperatures Jessica became accustomed to in Iraq.
“The nights got cold, but when you go from 120 degrees to 70, that feels cold,” Gray said. “Imagine when you open an oven initially and the hot air blows in your face. That’s what it was like all the time during an Iraqi summer.”
Dealing with the rainy season also came with its own set of challenges.
“When it rains over there, the ground is like clay,” Gray said. “You’d walk a short distance and get about four inches of mud on your boots and grow taller the further you went.”
Mortar attacks were a common occurrence for Jessica in Iraq, but they became less scary and more routine as time went on. Thankfully, Jessica’s unit never faced any big threats of enemy fire. Jessica was able to take a much-needed break during her tour of duty when she got to visit Qatar for a five-day leave, as part of the U.S. Military's Rest and Recuperation Pass Program.
“Qatar was beautiful,” Gray said. “What I enjoyed the most was a guided tour of the city. I learned a lot about the culture, and I was able to take a dune buggy through the sand dunes and spent a day at the Persian Gulf.”
Jessica during her leave in Qatar.
When Jessica returned home in January 2010 to Wisconsin, life was unlike the one she left behind.
“Everyone back home was living their lives when I was gone,” Gray said. “In my mind, my life kind of stopped. My friends had graduated and moved away, so I had to re-establish the rhythm of my own life, which was hard.”
Jessica was then selected to participate in the Army National Guard Best Warrior Competition in April 2011.
The annual competition evaluates soldiers on a variety of technical and tactical skills and simulates realistic military scenarios to determine the state’s best noncommissioned officer (NCO) and soldier within the state, with the winner moving on to the regional and national competitions. Soldiers battle it out in events that include marksmanship, day and night land navigation, machine gun qualifications, a physical appearance board, essay writing, an interview, a written test, a 12-mile ruck march, an Army Combat Fitness test, and combat casualty care.
Jessica during the Best Warrior Competition at Fort McCoy.
After a grueling and intense three-day competition filled with physical and mental challenges and suffering from near exhaustion and fatigue, Jessica pushed herself to the finish and surpassed her own goals and what she thought were her capabilities.
Jessica competed at the company, battalion, and brigade levels, and became the only female noncommissioned officer (NCO) to make it to the state level of the competition in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
“The things that I did there, I still can’t believe I did,” Gray said. “We had combatives and shooting and you had to qualify with your weapon and do a stress fire and carry mannequins (pretending like they were injured soldiers) down and back a certain distance. It was cold and freezing, but I was probably in the best shape of my life.”
Jessica continued her education and completed a Master of Social Work at UW-Oshkosh in August 2012 with help from the Post 9/11 GI Bill, an educational assistance program enacted by Congress that provides up to 36 months of education benefits for active-duty service members.
Being in the National Guard has given Jessica many experiences she wouldn’t have had otherwise, including being able to travel all around the United States and overseas.
“I’ve been pulled up by a helicopter and dropped back down and flown in different military aircraft,” Gray said. “I’ve gotten to go skydiving with the Army skydiving team, which was incredible. I met amazing people from all over the world who I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The view from a Black Hawk Helicopter during on of Jessica's rides over Fort McCoy.
If she hadn’t decided to enlist in the National Guard, Jessica also wouldn’t have met her husband, Anthony Reinhart. After striking up a friendship in 2008, their relationship grew into love, and they decided to tie the knot. They’ve been married four years now and are busy raising their family in Watertown, which includes Jessica’s stepson, Jaxson, their three-year-old son, Connor, and their dog, Maya. They welcomed another addition to the family when their son, Mason, was born a few days before Christmas in 2021. Anthony works full-time in the Active Guard Reserve (AGR), which means he and Jessica are both constantly on the move.
“Our household is always a balancing act when it comes to work, military, and family,” said Reinhart. “I think the biggest advantage for us is that we are both in the military and we pick up the other’s responsibilities.”
When Jessica has an off day from Rainbow, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is on vacation. Jessica’s commitment to the National Guard usually requires around one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer. But sometimes she also must attend training meetings, make phone calls, or complete other behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t necessarily get done in just one weekend.
“Jessica takes on a lot which can be overwhelming at times, but we are better together as a team and I appreciate everything she has done for our country and family,” Reinhart said.
Jessica achieved the rank of First Sergeant in September 2021 and has now overtaken her husband, who is a Sergeant First Class. They celebrated that milestone at her promotion ceremony this past April.
Jessica and her husband Anthony at her promotion ceremony in April 2022.
“I outrank him right now, which he doesn’t like because he’s been in a little longer than me,” Gray chuckled. “But I don’t rub it in too much.”
“We do joke about her having a higher rank between military work and being the boss at home,” Reinhart laughed. “But the reality of it is that she has earned her rank, so I don’t take any of that away from her.”
This past July, Jessica left for an entire month of training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, which meant leaving behind her husband, children, and job at Rainbow.
“It is hard on the kids because they don’t really understand why Mom has to be gone,” said Gray. “But my husband does an excellent job holding down the fort and my family helps out too. Tony left for military school for three weeks the day after I got home, so I had to get into a new routine of just me caring for the kids. It was tough, but we made it through.”
Jessica’s 457th Chemical Company out of Whitewater traveled to Louisiana to support the California National Guard, with a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) designed to defend the country against any biological, chemical, or nuclear threats. They also oversaw any defense measures, including response operations, and detection and decontamination equipment. During that time, Jessica had no means of communication for 14 days.
Jessica at the JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center) at Fort Polk, Lousiana this past summer.
“We were out in the field and didn’t have our phones, computers, or any toilets, or showers in the extreme heat of Louisiana, so that was fun,” Gray said. “Not being able to see or talk to my family made it harder.”
“I still texted her every day even though I knew she wouldn’t get the messages until after she got done with those 14 days,” Reinhart said. “I sent pictures of the boys and just kept the house in working order.”
Both Jessica and Anthony have been able to handle things on the home front when the other is serving their country thanks to a strong support system from Jessica’s family and their trust and commitment to each other. Both have a mutual respect for what the other has accomplished.
“What makes us work so well together is that we feed off each other’s success,” Reinhart said. “Jess makes me want to better myself and set goals to get to her level. My life is best when she is by my side.”
Rainbow’s social worker team also admires Jessica’s dedication and is more than willing to fill in and take care of Jessica’s patients while she is away.
“We have a lot of respect for her responsibilities as a social worker, a soldier, and a mother,” said Mindy Triebold, Rainbow’s Director of Social Services. “Anything we can do to support her is an honor and I think my department all genuinely feels that.”
“We all care about our patients and worry about them outside of work, so it was tough having some patients pass away and not being there to support them and their family at the end of life,” Gray said. “But I have some of the most amazing coworkers and supervisor, so I know that my patients will be cared for when I’m away.”
A strong work ethic, grace under pressure, and the leadership qualities she acquired in the military have served Jessica well in the field of social work, where she provides support to terminally ill patients and their families.
Jessica is busy at work as a social worker for Rainbow Hospice Care.
“Being in the military helps you develop as a leader. You get to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and have so many different experiences that you can use in your civilian life,” Gray said. “It's a bit like a love-hate relationship. But you really get connected to people, and that makes you want to stay in.”
Jessica’s military service has also left her with a greater appreciation for the veterans Rainbow cares for on its hospice and palliative care programs. Knowing what they’ve been through on the battlefield has helped her relate to them even better.
“For whatever reason, it seems like veterans open up more to other veterans,” Gray said. “Sometimes patients have never told their families any of their stories or only share the good ones. When they find out I’ve been in the military, patients often share more and tell you the real picture of what happened.”
“Jessica’s military service gives her an insight into the sacrifices and challenges facing veterans. She is uniquely empathetic to their needs and has a better understanding of the resources and benefits that can help support veterans,” Triebold said.
After she enlisted, Jessica slowly started learning more about her dad’s military history and his service in Vietnam.
“He never talked about it but when I came home from deployment, he started opening up and showed us pictures from his time in Vietnam. I was telling my mom about it, and she never even knew he had pictures from that time,” Gray said.
Jessica’s time in the Wisconsin Army National Guard will soon come to a close. In two years, she will retire from service and devote more time to her family and being a mom.
“The people are probably the biggest reason I've stayed in the Guard for 19 years,” Gray said. “Now, having children and a family, I can't imagine how people do it for their whole career, how they manage a family, being gone for deployments, and just being away. I give military people so much credit for that.”
Jessica has no regrets about her journey of becoming a National Guard member. What started originally as just wanting some help to pay for her college tuition has led to her shaping the lives of future soldiers and has made her a better social worker, mother, and wife.
“She is the best wife out there,” Reinhart said. “She is kind, caring, smart, funny, beautiful, and absolutely amazing. She has a heart of gold with how much she cares for people, whether that’s as a social worker or in the military with her soldiers. Jess is a natural leader in the aspect of understanding a situation, being able to adapt and plan accordingly to ensure whatever her task may be, that it’s a success.”
“Making connections is a big part of social work and the part I love the most,” Gray said. “With soldiers, I’m able to make connections and motivate them to do what they need to get the mission complete. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been under a lot of stress in the military, and I’ve learned to keep my cool. With hospice, you’re faced with tough situations with patients and families. And of course, being a mom is always stressful, but I wouldn’t change any of it.”
Words of wisdom from someone who is a hero to so many, a hospice social worker by day, a mom by night, and a warrior by weekend.