Mattie Gray

By Paul Wood

Photo By Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN — Mattie Gray is one of five in her family to serve over the course of four generations.

She was in the Air Force from 1979 to 1983 and worked as a firefighter for a time at Chanute Air Force Base.

Staff Sgt. Gray, 66, doesn’t know much of her father’s history beyond that Sherley Young was a corporal in the Army in World War II.

He passed in 1995, she said.

She is the second generation, and her children and a grandchild have also served.

And she’s married to a veteran, Leonard Gray, like her, an Air Force veteran.

A Dayton, Ohio, native, she had hoped to be stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, to be close to family.

“I decided in 1979, after a divorce, with three children, to join the Air Force. My mom kept my kids while I was going through my training. I was sent to Sheppard Air Force Base, then Chanute,” she said.

“I was at Chanute at the end because my mom was sick.”

Gray was a specialist.

“I became a firefighter — that was what brought me to Chanute. I was one of the first female firefighters.

“It was exciting, very challenging, especially being a female up against the guys,” Gray said.

She thrived with the challenge.

“I won an award for firehose connections — I could do things faster than the guys because I had smaller hands,” she said.

She once left the base to help put out on a downtown Rantoul fire.

“Trucks came from everywhere. That was the biggest fire I had ever participated in. The adrenaline was flowing. Nobody died, so that was great,” she said.

Then the Air Force staff sergeant became supervisor at the alarm center, overseeing the dispatching duties.

But finally, it came time to move on.

“I got out because of the kids,” she said.

“They constantly wanted to send me or my husband overseas, but we had teenagers, and we wanted them to have supervision.”

Service became a family thing.

Her son, Koreem Rhodes, 42, was an Army master sergeant and is now a U.S. marshal. He served two years in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.

He retired in 2017.

Another son, Derrick Young, was in the Army and spent four years in Germany.

“I went to Germany several times because they had their family,” Gray said. “We saw a lot of other countries.”

Grandson Darien Young, a private first class, served in the reserves and got out two years ago.

“Our family, we love our country,” Gray said. “The kids had that military bearing around them, and that makes me proud.”

Why the family loyalty?

“The greatest thing about America is our freedom,” said Gray, who’s visited several countries.

And the military experience?

“I would do it again,” she said emphatically.

All of that family service has worked out well.

“I met Lenny at Chanute, and we’re approaching 39 years of marriage. He retired as a tech sergeant after 21 years,” she said.

Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at