TULSA, Okla. – Capt. Robert S. Gaygay, 138th Medical Group preventative health assessment officer in charge, fled Liberia during a civil war and, through perseverance and determination, became an officer in the Oklahoma Air National Guard.
Gaygay was one of 25 Airmen from the 138th Fighter Wing who were activated to work at a food bank while supporting the state's COVID-19 response. He served as the deputy officer in charge of the Tulsa region.
"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 in a large family. His father was a physician's assistant who cared for the sick and ensured that children in rural North Liberia were vaccinated.
"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 health care 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 preteen, a civil war broke out across Liberia.
"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 his parents and the rest of his family, Gaygay and his siblings left the shelter in the woods for the border. 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 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 to let them 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 francs each, which is only the equivalent of about two to three U.S. dollars but even that we did not have."
When people noticed Gaygay and his siblings had nothing, they got together to pay for their passage. Gaygay and his siblings then settled into a refugee camp where they attended and graduated from a high school run 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 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. He continued his journey, faced with more challenges, including taking a break from college twice and divorce. Gaygay moved to Tulsa to continue his dream of becoming a doctor by working toward 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 went on to receive his graduate degree from Oklahoma State University. He said joining the military was one of the best decisions of his life, along with meeting his wife. They now have three children.
"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 said. "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."