Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan The Home Depot Foundation approved a $13,000 grant toward the cost of materials to build an apartment for U.S. Army soldier, Samuel Walley, who had his left forearm and right leg amputated after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in June. Home Depot employees Tony Laurio, left, Juan Zarate, center, and Jason Patton, right, review the plans for the kitchen cabinets on Friday. Walley, who remains at a D.C.-area hospital, will return to a wheelchair friendly apartment, which is built in the basement of his parents home in Winder.
WINDER -- When Tiffany Bradley waved goodbye to her brother-in-law before his March deployment to Afghanistan, she figured it would be the last time she saw him alive. Trading bullets in defense of America, she knew, was his calling. She was at peace with the solemn finality.
Bradley had watched U.S. Army Cpl. Samuel Walley mature from a renegade teenager who loved heavy metal music, constant cursing, trampoline stunts and Xbox gaming into the most patriotic young man she knew. Equal parts intrepid and wild, Samuel had gone headlong into paratrooper training at Fort Benning, jumping out of the first airplane he'd ever ridden in. He took 10 flights before actually landing in an airplane.
That same unflinching moxie, Bradley knew, would apply to the battlefield. The kid was born to protect.
"(Samuel) wasn't going to back down," Bradley said. "He wanted to be in the action -- in the fighting, on the front line."
On the sweltering morning of June 6, two days after his 20th birthday, Samuel's will to serve his country altered the course of his life, and the lives of his parents. During a reconnaissance mission in the jungles of Zhari, a district used by the Taliban as a gateway to heavily populated Kandahar, Samuel stepped on a buried improvised explosive device. The bomb hurled him more than 15 feet in the air. He did not come down in one piece.
The blast claimed Samuel's left arm below the elbow, his right leg above the knee, and shredded his lower left leg. He stayed conscious, even joking to his buddies about the condition of his "man parts" and asking if the bomb-propelled flight counted toward his parachute jumps, Bradley recalled. Shock didn't set in until Samuel reached the surgeon's table. Gone, he thought, were his chances of becoming a police officer.
Unlike more than 2,000 of his U.S. military counterparts in Afghanistan, Samuel had survived. He beat the surreptitious bite of an IED. A week before, a friend and fellow infantryman with the 82nd Army Airborne Division had been killed by a similar IED in a puddle. Samuel had emerged from countless firefights and tense minesweeping duties unscathed, but constant risk caught him at last. He was the first casualty among 25 soldiers in his platoon.
In five days, Samuel would be back on U.S. soil, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His parents rushed from Winder to the Atlanta airport and caught the first flight to Washington, D.C. Samuel's father, an ex-trucker and fellow Army veteran, slept in a reclining chair at his son's bedside for four months. None of them have been home since June.
Prognoses put Samuel back home in the spring, at earliest. But thanks to an eclectic group of 40 volunteers, the home the Walleys will return to will be vastly altered -- a suitable environ for a wounded veteran trying to right the course of his life.
On a chilly December day in the Park Place subdivision, a gathering of contractor trucks crowded the Walley residence, set back on a wide hilly lot. A plastic American flag dripped rain on the mailbox. A Nissan in the driveway bore the bumper sticker, "Proud Parent of Army Soldier." Inside, the cluttered man-cave basement space Samuel had left behind was cleared out and framed with the skeleton of handicap-accessible living quarters -- wide doorways, a huge shower with railings and a roomy kitchen. Once finished this month, Samuel's basement apartment will add 1,200 square feet of living space at no cost to his family.
The project stresses functionality. And while it lacks the move-the-bus bravado of a reality show home overhaul, it's the largest veteran assistance project ever undertaken by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5255 in Lawrenceville, which contributed more than $80,000 to veterans last year -- money gathered mostly from bingo tourneys.
The project launched when VFW's Georgia headquarters alerted Mike Brown, the Lawrenceville post's quartermaster, to Samuel's situation. Coincidentally, Brown had heard from Home Depot Foundation leaders about $14,000 in available grant monies, and a strong desire by employees at Suwanee and Lawrenceville stores to help a veteran in the Gwinnett area.
Brown called a meeting with Steve Curtis, manager of Suwanee's Home Depot, and solicited the help of area plumbers, electricians and a general contractor to lead the build. Among the eclectic crew are veterans of conflicts from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm.
All told, more than 40 volunteers who have never met Samuel will have a hand in building his subterranean abode.
"He's a good kid," said volunteer HVAC installer Glenn Petty, who formerly worked with Samuel's father. "As far as his character, it speaks volumes what he went and did. I mean, he volunteered."
Said Home Depot's Curtis, surveying the future kitchen, "We typically do four or five projects like this a year, but not to this scale. Typically it's a bathroom, a ramp."
On that rainy day, Brown shook his head in the basement and chuckled at the project's confluence of volunteerism. Jason Patton, Suwanee Home Depot manager, said the apartment's chief objective is to increase Samuel's mobility and make him feel capable.
"Obviously, life's not going to be normal for him," Patton said, "but we're going to try to make it as normal as possible."
There's another apartment in the Walleys' lives for now.
Once Samuel was able to, the trio swapped their cramped hospital confines for a two-bedroom outpatient apartment on the Walter Reed campus -- a de facto hotel for the injured and their families. Community fundraisers have enabled Samuel's parents, Kelly and Connie, to support him in person through his ongoing gantlet of surgeries. Neighbors have cut the Walleys' grass in their absence. Kelly elected to skip his brother's funeral to remain with his son.
"Samuel was raised as an only child," Bradley said, "so this is the center of their universe in every conceivable way."
For two self-described homebodies, relocating from a cushy rural home with 20-foot living-room ceilings to an East Coast apartment has been jolting, but Connie remains optimistic. Samuel's predicament could be worse. His elbow joint was spared in the blast, crucial for brain control of prosthetic limbs.
On the phone with a reporter, Connie imagined workers in hard hats toiling in the home she hadn't seen in six months.
"I haven't the faintest idea what's going on," she laughed. "Every time I have a passing, quick thought about it, I think, 'My gosh, what is my house going to look like?'"
As for Samuel, he's quit smoking his beloved menthol cigarettes in hopes of recovering faster; healed, he plans to attend college while holding a job in some capacity with the government.
Since boyhood, Samuel felt he was wired to be a soldier, but he never envisioned it landing him in the predicament of a double amputee. He still pines to shoot his AK-47, or his 12 gauge, or any of the cache of weapons he's collected since basic training -- since he realized he appreciated gun craftsmanship like curators do art.
The bomb dealt Samuel a constant hurdle in the form of physical limitations. But it hardly dimmed his spirit, or slowed his smarts. He can be candid. He knows there is a future for him in the world. He clings to the thought that perseverance will pay off, that one day he will come home for good.
"I just wanna go back home and stay there," Samuel said. "I just want the simple things people take for granted. I want a freakin' dog."