Cementing a Legacy
Gray is proud to observe Veterans Day to celebrate service members from all military branches. Gray’s relationship to veterans and their sacrifices made for our country extend all the way back to Gray’s founder, James Norris Gray, who served as a naval petty officer in World War II. His wife, Lois Gray, also served in the U.S. Navy as a WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) officer.
Today, Gray employs 112 veterans and recently launched a new Employee-Driven Cooperative (EDC) called SPEAR, which aims to serve the community, recruit veterans to job opportunities at Gray, and connect with fellow veterans within the Gray family. One of those veterans is Ben Carnell, vice president of NexGen Contracting, a Gray company. We sat down with Ben to talk about his time in the military and how his background as veteran has prepared him to take on the challenge of building and evolving the NexGen team.
The Day Everything Changed
September 11, 2001, began just like any other day for high school freshman, Ben Carnell. He had no idea the events that were about to transpire would change his life trajectory forever.
“I was sitting in Spanish class when we received the news that the World Trade Center had been attacked,” Carnell said. “And I immediately told myself, ‘I’m going to war.’”
Flash forward to April 3, 2019. Carnell, now a Special Forces Captain assigned to Special Operations Joint Task Force in Afghanistan, and his team were preparing to raid a heavily fortified ISIS-K village, tucked deep within the mountains of Afghanistan. After weeks of intel and the mission being greenlit then canceled, the team finally determined it was time to act.
As the helicopter dropped the team into a dry riverbed, under the covering of night, Carnell was acutely aware of the inherent danger. But he knew this was where he was supposed to be.
As the team approached the main building within the village, they were met with heavy enemy fire. As they cleared the building floor by floor, an explosion alerted ISIS-K fighters to Carnell’s location directly above them. Six rounds hit Carnell, who sustained four gunshot wounds. He then eliminated a threat and was subsequently hit with a blast from an explosive vest the threat was wearing.
After a short firefight, Carnell maneuvered to the casualty collection point, where he was hoisted into a helicopter and woke up in the hospital, where he pondered the next chapter of his life. After some challenges associated with his recovery, Carnell decided it was time to end his military career and get back to the construction industry.
A Concrete Foundation
Since he was 12 years old, Carnell has been involved in the family concrete business. Throughout high school and during breaks from college, he learned the tools of the trade—but didn’t necessarily plan to carry on the family legacy.
When Carnell realized his days of active duty were over, he reached out to an old friend, who hired him as a construction laborer. “I decided it was time to take the skills I learned and make a living,” he said. “I realized that I had a responsibility to contribute to this trade because it has had a positive impact on my life.”
The Nex(Gen) Chapter
Carnell had another acquaintance with whom he discussed future opportunities: Patrick McCowan, Gray Construction’s chief operating officer. McCowan convinced Carnell to pay a visit to Gray’s Lexington office, and he immediately felt a sense of comfort. Carnell was used to an open-office environment without communication silos—it reminded him of his special operations units.
He spoke with several Gray executives about a new self-perform initiative and was intrigued by its potential. The clincher for Carnell was hearing Brian Jones explain his strategic goal: to develop the next generation of builders.
“I identified with that on a missional level,” he said. “The entrepreneurial aspect of this part of the business is exciting.”
Carnell joined Gray in 2022 as the director of NexGen before being promoted to vice president. The leadership skills he acquired from his upbringing and military experience are on full display, as he leads the team into a new era.
“Teaching people how to build something from nothing is such a rewarding experience,” Carnell said. “What makes NexGen special is the people that bring their unique expertise to the table. This area of the business is growing because of their efforts.”
Outside the office, Carnell enjoys spending time with his wife and three children. His hobbies include camping and endurance running.