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3L Corey Gray: From Picking Beans to Filing Briefs with Detour to Iraq

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Captain Corey Gray, 3L

Captain Corey Gray, 3L (Photo: Miami Law) See Full Photo

Third year law student Corey Gray grew up "just up the road" in Palm Beach County. He spent his time between his mother's house and his grandparents' farm near the eastern edge of the Everglades. The family grew row crops and from the age of five, he grew up surrounded by family and seasonal workers out in the fields. It gave him both a sense of belonging and a comfort around adults.

"It was a really cool time; you had folks of all ages and all walks of life," Gray said. "My mom has fifteen brothers and sisters and my granddad had 22 kids and everyone was employed pretty much on the farm. People would talk all day about odds and ends and tell stories, and I also thought it was pretty cool earning my own money – enough for a soda and a hot dog."

Now, at 34, he has travelled the world to end up just down the road from his childhood home.

His journey began in high school when he joined the Air Force JROTC and became involved with a faith-based organization that would provide a world of guidance and comfort, introducing him to the concept of service. As a high school junior, the idea of college entered the picture – something he had never considered before. Gray's church backed him and he was offered a spot at Florida State University. He was a trailblazer in the sense that he would be the first in his family to reach for a higher education but he didn't have the confidence that he could succeed at that level, and instead started at community college before transitioning to FSU, where he would graduate with a Bachelor of Science in History and Political Science in May of 2002.

With an eye toward entering politics, Gray went to Washington, D.C. to intern with U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. His grand plan was diverted by the events of 9-11, sending him back to Florida State for graduate school in History and Army ROTC, and then into the U.S. Army.

In 2004, he would begin serving five years of active duty, pulling tours in Baghdad, Abu Ghraib, and Kirkuk, Iraq. He said the overall mission was clear but down in the details it became opaque.

"We were there to keep the peace, and it was a tough time. It seemed like we were always a day late, and a dollar short, as the saying goes," he said. "In warfare, I found similarities to being out there picking produce, it's the relationships that make the job doable. If you took away the family and the friends and the stories and you were just sitting out there in the sun at five years old picking beans it would not be so much fun much the same way it was in Baghdad." Captain Gray would spend his second deployment in Kirkuk, Iraq just as General Petraeus introduced the counter-insurgency strategy. "The core of that was to interface, to get into people's homes, find out what their issues were, find a common lines, and try to move forward from there," Gray said. "Although it was still combat, it was still difficult hard work, building relationships made it much more sweet and the results were much more tangible."

Back on the home front, his wife Marissa was attending Miami Law. Gray credits Dean Marni Lennon, Joanne Koren, Bernie Perlmutter, and Terence Anderson with creating a support system for Marissa that provided "unbelievable support and guidance. "Neither she nor I could have managed through those years without the encouragement and empathy of them. For me, it eased my mind that someone had her back as well."

Gray returned home, went on Reserve status taking command of a reserve unit in October 2009 and was assigned to U.S. Southern Command, where Captain Gray is still an Intelligence Officer in the Foreign Disclosure Office.

"I decided to come to law school in large part because of my experiences during my second deployment," he said. His work in Iraq interfacing between the JAG Corps, military, and civilian population often involved drafting contracts both small and large for schools, bridges, and infrastructure.

"We drafted a contract with all the local leaders that empowered them to police and protect their own neighborhoods," he said. "It was quite effective; it gave them a sense of pride, a sense of ownership of their own neighborhoods, and by default their own region and country. I saw that the law could be used to change a culture, at least in my little small section. I saw that a culture of violence change to one of cooperation through using the law. And I'm doing this in a different language, in a different culture, most of the time through a translator; I could do this back home with a law degree."

"I knew Miami Law would be a place that would allow me to grow and take care of me while I transitioned from the military as a full time life and occupation to being a lawyer and a citizen," he said. "I find that sitting down with someone and helping them work through their issues and providing solutions to help them achieve a fresh start it quite appealing along with the thought of being an advocate for someone when things aren't at their best to be a form of service that I can get behind."

Gray, who is editor-in-chief of the National Security and Armed Conflict Law Review, is surprised by his interest in pursuing bankruptcy law and credits mentors John Kozak, whose firm Kozak Tropin & Throckmorton provides a minority mentoring program where minority law students are paired with local practitioners; his bankruptcy professor, Patricia Redmond, and local attorney Paul Orshan.

"Professor Redmond is a great teacher who is able to take something very complex – the multiple codes and sections of bankruptcy -- and make them accessible. She has a huge heart for people; her leadership in the Eleanor R. Cristol and Judge A. Jay Cristol Bankruptcy Pro Bono Assistance Clinic has been instrumental because she provides a level of mentorship in dealing with clients. She helps you understand that beyond the law there is a human being going through a bankruptcy and generally, when it is a Chapter 7, is liquidating everything that they have in order to satisfy a debt to get a fresh start. This can be a significant emotional experience for folks. She is great at taking complex laws and marrying them with the human element of the service that you are providing. That is very appealing as a student because it makes learning real. When you can tie an emotion to an idea, it sticks and Professor Redmond is a master at that."

With any luck, he says, this time next year he will be Major Gray, have defended his Master's Thesis on the Industrial Modernization in the American Civil War, and become a father.