Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan U.S. Army Specialist Samuel Walley examines the remains of his left arm in his new apartment located in the basement area of his parents home in Winder Thursday. In January the Home Depot Foundation approved a $13,000 grant toward the cost of materials to build an apartment for Walley.
U.S. Army Specialist Samuel Walley
U.S. Army Specialist Samuel Walley lost his leg and arm in June 2012 while serving in Afghanistan.
WINDER — It wasn’t the little boy’s fault. He didn’t mean to rub his hero the wrong way.
U.S. Army Cpl. Samuel Walley had just arrived in Winder, in the black Ford F-150 Platinum edition he calls “Black Betty.” He stepped out of the truck at First Baptist Church of Winder and waved to adoring, flag-waving crowds. The Boy Scout was the first of many to approach him, holding a small American flag. The boy wanted an autograph, on the flag, but Samuel had to decline. I’m not going to disgrace an American flag, Samuel thought, or maybe said, under his breath. I just gave up my limbs for that flag.
So began Samuel’s three-week return to his hometown, a trip he’s pined for since the bomb detonated a year ago in Afghanistan. His stay ended Friday, when he left for a battle buddy’s wedding at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he’d been stationed prior to deployment. After that, he’s driving Black Betty back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland, where he’s being treated and trained to live as a double amputee.
Before his May 30 homecoming — a procession attended by thousands, who crowded roadsides from Augusta to Winder in patriotic welcome, as Samuel rode shotgun and waved — he was last home on Valentine’s Day 2012.
While Samuel was in the jungles of Zhari, witnessing unspeakable bloodshed, regular life continued in Winder. His friends were starting to get married. They were throwing parties. Being young adults. Meanwhile, on a recon mission, Samuel stepped on a buried improvised explosive device. Tossed 15 feet in the air, Samuel landed and thought how lucky he was to not be “pink vapor” — solider parlance for vaporized flesh, bones and blood.
For all of Samuel’s physical changes, home was sweet as ever. Friends came by constantly, and no one mourned the old Samuel. They embraced the new one, quick-witted and devilish as ever, just a little slower getting around.
While home, Samuel judged a bikini competition in Athens. He befriended bikers. He hoisted a few with World War II veterans. He celebrated his 21st birthday and then his “Alive Day” — the anniversary of his injuries — on June 6. His visit flicked by in a happy instant.
Three days before the next goodbye, Samuel awoke in the mid-afternoon, having partied with pals until daybreak. (They had to pack the good times in). Through the course of the evening, in a basement apartment built by volunteers, he reflected on war and spoke excitedly of the future, lending snapshots of a life that’s emblematic of American wartime sacrifice.
A life with one leg, and one arm. A life he feels has only just begun.
Understand that Samuel is a rebel. Always was. In pre-K at Hope Christian Academy, he climbed atop a cafeteria table in protest and stripped naked — a stunt that got him kicked out of school.
Despite his wildness, he knew his purpose. On the wall of Samuel’s hospital room at Walter Reed hung a photo of him at age 5 with an Army tank. Fitting, as the Army is all but hereditary.
His cousin died in an Army air-jump. His father was an Army engineer, and his grandfather served with Elvis as an Army truck driver. His great-grandfather was a German Nazi, but “one of the nicest guys in the world” who gardened constantly while drinking a beer with lemon, Samuel quickly adds. Further back, his family fought as Confederate soldiers. He jokes that he probably had family in the Crusades.
In the Army, his colorblindness relegated him to four choices: truck driver, supplier, news reporter or infantryman. He briefly considered reporting, but opted for infantry, moved by his respect for the lower enlisted.
When Samuel was deployed it dawned on him he would be fighting the same war he’d seen on television as a little kid. How weird, he thought.
His memory of the explosion is crisp. He’s been told to write it all down but hasn’t, so confident he’ll never forget. In a traumatic event, they say your brain has photographic capabilities. For Samuel those images include his left arm, dangling by a thread of skin beneath the elbow. He sees the worried faces of his cohorts, even as he tried to crack jokes.
The pain permeated the morphine. He awoke on the other side of Afghanistan. Somewhere in between a two-star general slipped him a Purple Heart medal. No ceremony at all, which is how Samuel likes it.
Like she had most days, Samuel’s cousin Callie Baize, a friend since they were babies, stopped by after work at a doctor’s office. She lifted her scrubs to show a new tattoo on her calf: Samuel’s name with the Army Airborne symbol, a Purple Heart medal dangling beneath. Why did she do that?
“’Cause I love him,” said Baize, in the singsong drawl Samuel constantly mocks. “Just wanted to do something nice.”
The bomb took a few tattoos from Samuel. But he has plenty more, including a depiction of his first AK-47 on his left biceps and the letters RAW for “Rugby,” which he played in high school and considered a brotherhood, “Alcohol” and “Women.” On his shoulder lurks a big, wispy grim reaper.
His arm prosthesis is festooned with images of skulls and Spartans — “the greatest warriors in history,” Samuel asserted, before launching in historical anecdotes. He has a head full of trivia. Eventually, he could see himself as a history teacher.
On the basement television, an international news correspondent reported that Afghan forces were taking over the U.S.-led coalition. “We’re getting out of the way,” Samuel said, clearly skeptical. A few segments later, the rapper Lil’ Wayne was shown stepping on Old Glory during a performance, an alleged accident. Samuel spouted something not fit for print.
Samuel’s father, Kelly Walley, came downstairs holding two handwritten signs: “Welcome home,” one read. “We love you.” Little girls from the neighborhood had brought them over. They’d never met Samuel.
“People just stop by all the time,” said Kelly.
After the bomb, Kelly raced with his wife to Walter Reed and hardly left his son’s bedside for several months, sleeping in a recliner. The nurses aren’t always there to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night. But dad was.
In that bed, Samuel kept meeting famous people. Herschel Walker. The bassist from Guns N’ Roses. Montell Williams, who asked: “What do you want to do, now that you’re getting better?”
Replied Samuel: “Blow stuff up.”
Even President Barrack Obama visited Samuel, twice. Samuel gave the president “a speech” about America. He recounted how he’d grown up playing in a nice yard without the threat of people shooting at him. He told the president his injuries were his repayment to his country.
Samuel leaned over on his sectional couch to exhibit a seven-minute YouTube video on his iPhone. It means a lot to him, strengthens him.
The video shows military amputees accomplishing goals — climbing a mountain of ice, firing automatic weapons, surfing. “Once you live with your limbs, you can’t comprehend (loosing them) when it first happens,” Samuel said. “It’s just hard to accept.”
Tying his shoes takes him forever. Cutting fingernails — impossible. But at Walter Reed, where he’s hopeful more surgeries on his battered left leg won’t be necessary, he is in the wounded majority. He misses the hospital.
A little later, Samuel’s aunt came over with two cousins. She suggested he get a dog, maybe a poodle.
“Do I look like a poodle guy to you?” Samuel said, pointing to his mohawk.
Samuel handed his 5-year-old cousin (who is fascinated by guns) a double-magazine of bullets. Samuel has always appreciated the artistry of weapons, including his AK-47 “Black Velvet,” his ubiquitous 9 millimeter “The Punisher” and a new gun — bought with a 20 percent Wounded Warriors discount — that looks capable of mowing down a brontosaurus.
Once fully healed, Samuel will mull two career paths: He’ll either be a weapons instructor at Fort Benning, or commit himself to the Paralympics as a competition shooter. His aim is actually steadier with one hand. Earlier this year, he boasted, he outshot a Navy Seal.
In Lawrenceville, the VFW Post 5255 and Ladies Axillary hosted a barbecue in Samuel’s honor one Saturday in June. The intent was for him to relax, eat well and talk shop with veterans of conflicts dating back to World War II. Mike Brown, the post’s quartermaster, said Samuel’s “fantastic attitude” was an inspiration.
The VFW had spearheaded efforts to convert the Walleys’ basement into Samuel’s handicap-accessible apartment — the largest veteran-assistance project the post has undertaken since its 1946 founding. More than 40 electricians, plumbers and materials suppliers volunteered, spending thousands on the transformation. But none of them want to discuss exactly how much money or time was expended, because it’s not about them now. Said Brown, the liaison: “They would like your article to reflect on Samuel and not them.”
As the evening wound down, Samuel sprayed a lube of alcohol and water into his prosthetic leg and squeezed in his thigh. He’d been walking only three days without a cane — but don’t you dare try to help.
“That’s what’s pushing him,” said his mother, Connie, “to be self-sufficient.”
It’s that attitude, his father said, that’s impressed everyone from the get-go. But it’s everyone who has impressed his father, with an outpouring of support for Samuel his parents can barely comprehend.
“When I came back from overseas, Vietnam era, people were lining up at the airport gates, spitting on you,” said Kelly, whose disability payments for a bad back have kept the mortgage paid. But with Samuel, “It’s just been overwhelming — that’s the only thing I can say.”
Another friend came over, and after strapping The Punisher around his waist, Samuel was ready to head out. They loaded into Black Betty, which has been outfitted with a left-foot gas pedal and an electronic running board that assists Samuel with getting in. The Veteran’s Administration and the Yellow Ribbon Fund have foot the bill for the truck.
With Samuel driving, they roared into the night, and the scene could hardly have been more American: a gigantic pick-up truck in a neighborhood with big, beautiful lawns, bound for the liquor store and Taco Bell.
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