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Former POW finally gets new wheels

FORT WALTON BEACH — Retired Air Force Lt. Col. David Gray pulled up to the dealership Tuesday in a beat-up Ford Excursion.

The 72-year-old had put more than 325,000 miles on the aging sport utility vehicle. He had hopes of hitting the road for hundreds of thousands more.

For 12 years, Gray has traveled around the country hawking military souvenirs out of the oversized SUV adorned with an airbrushed bald eagle, a POW license plate and dozens of military bumper stickers. He’s driven from coast to coast several times over: four trips to San Diego, up to Oregon, down to South Florida.

It was finally time to trade in “the beast.”

“We’ve been all over,” Gray said. “We’ve had a wonderful time driving in this vehicle, lots of memories.”

Shortly after he retired from the military in 1991, Gray bought a minivan from his nephew at Ft. Walton Beach Auto Brokers and set out on his second career: selling military souvenirs at air and trade shows.

“I knew I didn’t want to sell real estate or mutual funds or some of those other boring things after I retired,” he said.

He has amassed a bulky collection of more than 4,500 items — 2,700 types of patches, 1,500 pins, hundreds of hats. His display alone takes up 600 square feet, not counting back stock.

Gray covers about 32,000 miles a year. These days he often travels to motorcycle gatherings where he is the only vendor of his kind.

A portion of his proceeds always go to the National League of POW and MIA families, a nonprofit that works to account for all those lost in Vietnam and the return of their remains to the United States.

It’s a cause that’s close to his heart. The fighter pilot spent nearly six years as a prisoner during the war after his plane was shot down. He was tortured and nearly starved to death.

He said a photograph of the back of his head while in prison — flipping the bird as all prisoners tried to do in propaganda photographs — appeared in Life magazine.

When Gray finally made it home, he was asked to call several wives and mothers who had thought his photo was their loved one to break the news that it was not.

“That was hard,” he said. “It was taking away their last hope.”

Gray said one of his favorite parts of traveling is meeting people and sharing their experiences, especially fellow Vietnam veterans.

“It turns out I’m really a better story teller than a businessman,” he said.

He left Ft. Walton Beach Auto Brokers on Tuesday in a new passenger van, a spacious upgrade from his Excursion.

He has a few weeks to outfit the new vehicle to haul his stash of souvenirs, but then he’d be on his way. First up: new memories made on the 500 miles to Melbourne.

 “I’m excited about it. I got a good price, bought it from family,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”

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