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News from the Oklahoma National Guard

NEWS | July 7, 2020

Perseverance during trying times turns Liberian into ANG Captain

By Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Imwalle 138th Fighter Wing

TULSA, Okla — A journey that began in Liberia as the president of his seventh grade class led to fleeing the country during a civil war and ultimately becoming an officer in the Oklahoma Air National Guard is one of perseverance and determination.

This journey is the life of Capt. Robert S. Gaygay, 138th Medical Group preventative health assessment officer in charge, who attributes his success in life to God’s blessing first; followed by his tenacity, humility and positive attitude, which he realizes has been the platform for who he is today.

Gaygay was one of 25 Airmen from the 138th Fighter Wing who were activated to work at the local food bank while supporting the State’s COVID-19 response. He served as the deputy officer in charge of the Tulsa region, working alongside who he considers outstanding and motivated Airmen, to whom he was compelled to share his story.

“When I first met with these Airmen, I saw a lot of potential in them,” Gaygay said. “Right off the bat I saw two individuals who could be general officers in the future… and after two weeks of working with them, I could see five general officers in the room. I hoped that sharing my story would help them to stay on course, no matter the obstacle – and to never stop dreaming.”

Gaygay was born and raised in Liberia with a large family. His father was the local physician’s assistant charged with distributing vaccinations, making sure children in rural North Liberia were vaccinated and caring for the sick.

“The act of distributing food to people in rural Oklahoma reminded me of my dad when I was growing up,” Gaygay said. “His whole life has been committed to helping people who can’t help themselves or have very little access to healthcare or resources. Being able to help out and work food bank missions during COVID-19 was almost like a dream come true. This is exactly what I wanted to do when I joined the military – serve and protect.”

When Gaygay was a pre-teen, a civil war broke out across Liberia. He explained that at first, they thought there was going to be a couple of months and the war would be over, but it continued to move across the country quickly becoming a nightmare for every family.

“When my dad realized there was no end in sight for the war, he was devastated. He had very few choices,” Gaygay said. “The boys, a target for being taken from their families and trained as child soldiers, went to the bushes and built a shelter to live in. My parents would come to cook for us and bring food then return home. We were there for several weeks expecting things to go back to normal, but after midnight one night some of our friends came to tell us that there was no end in sight, that people were leaving to cross the border into the Republic of Guinea.”

Without a chance to say goodbye to the remainder of his family or his parents, Gaygay and his siblings left the shelter in the woods to head for the border. Gaygay said that he and his siblings were waiting at the border of the Republic of Guinea with hundreds of other refugees for access to the country, which is bordered by a wide river. At the time, they were only accepting women and young children into the country and would transport them via canoe. While they were waiting, someone came running saying the Rebel Army was getting closer. At that point, they had no other option but to flee for their lives, so they all immediately began to cross the river.

“I had never experienced a miracle but realize now this was my first.” Gaygay said. “I didn’t know how to swim, and when we heard they were getting close everyone who was waiting, including mothers and young babies, all just swam through the river. Somehow, we all made it across safely, even the children in their mothers’ arms.”

Once safely across the river, the group was met by soldiers requesting money in order to proceed into nearby villages.

“Just imagine that you are fleeing for your life,” Gaygay said. “Forget about your clothes or anything that has physical meaning, including food. We had nothing, let alone money. But the soldiers at the border insisted that we pay them 3,000 Guinea Franks each, which is only the equivalent of about two to three U.S. dollars but even that we did not have.”

When money collection and people noticed Gaygay and his siblings had nothing, they got together to pay for their passage, ultimately paying for their freedom. Gaygay and his siblings then settled into a refugee camp where they attended and graduated from a high school ran by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee.

“I always say it is good to give when you are able to give,” Gaygay explained. “The day we left Liberia, there were people who didn’t even know us and we didn’t know them, but they sacrificed their money for us! When we are out on our routes, I like to buy lunch for the Airmen I am with because of this experience. When I speak with Airmen I always say if someone offers to pay for something, you should think about why they are willing to do that. I am doing it because somebody did it for me, especially when I needed it the most but could not afford it and now I am in the position to be able to pass it on.”

Gaygay explained that everything he had experienced growing up shaped him into the person and leader he is today.

“When it comes to being a transformational leader, or any kind of a good leader, there are three key words I associate with leadership,” Gaygay said. “Those words are tenacity, humility and just being positive, especially when it’s difficult to be positive… those three things can get you through life, no matter how challenging it is.”

After graduating high school in the Republic of Guinea, he moved to Minneapolis, MN. There he continued his journey, faced with challenges; including taking a break from college twice, a marriage that ended in divorce and loss of two real estates, but that didn’t stop him. Gaygay moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to continue his dream of becoming a doctor by working towards a nursing degree at Oral Roberts University, a school he had read about when he lived in Liberia.

“I told the Airmen that when they go through their career, things are going to happen,” Gaygay noted. “I told them, ‘please don’t quit on your career because of one challenge. If you hit a wall, I guarantee you will live through that and you will persevere. If you persist, you will persevere. Remember these stories I am sharing with you, because if I can get through it, I know you can.’”

In 2012, after Gaygay graduated from ORU, he commissioned in the Oklahoma Air National Guard. He then went on to receive his graduate degree from Oklahoma State University and said joining the military was one of the best decisions of his life, along with meeting his wife who he has three children with.

“While a journey doesn’t have a finish line, I recognize my journey is the path I was meant to take and the path that has made me who I am today,” Gaygay explained. “I always make myself available when people need me if I have the time and I never hold back when I see a situation where I can be of help. Do want you can do, every day.”
Video by Staff Sgt. Reece Heck
Oklahoma Guard conducts annual Mechanic of the Year competition
Oklahoma National Guard
Feb. 7, 2024 | 1:36
Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen gathered to test their mechanical skills at the third annual Mechanic of the Year competition held at the Combined Support Maintenance Shop in Norman, Oklahoma, Feb. 7, 2024. (Oklahoma National Guard video by Staff Sgt. Reece Heck)

CG Information:
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rocky Anderson
President of the Mechanic of the Year Board