Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Dozens of motorcycle clubs from around the region travel down Jefferson Highway while participating in the motorcade during welcome home parade for U.S. Army Specialist Samuel Walley of Barrow County at the First Baptist Church of Winder Thursday.
Locals welcome home U.S. Army Specialist Sam Walley
Locals gather to welcome home U.S. Army Specialist Samuel Walley of Barrow County at the First Baptist Church of Winder on Thursday. Walley lost his leg and arm in June 2012 while serving in Afghanistan.
WINDER -- Kori Estes held a colorful "welcome home" sign, an American flag and a smile as she stood on the curb waiting for a hero to arrive.
Estes' fifth-grade class at County Line Elementary School wrote a letter to U.S. Army Specialist Sam Walley and communicated with him through Facebook over the last year. So she was overjoyed to be among hundreds of well-wishers on a sunny and breezy Thursday afternoon at First Baptist Church in Winder to welcome Walley home. It's been nearly a year since Walley suffered the loss of his left arm below the elbow and right leg following an Improvised Explosive Device explosion while serving in Afghanistan on June 6, 2012.
Walley, a 2010 Winder-Barrow High School graduate where he was in the ROTC, was escorted into Winder on Ga. Highway 11 after a homecoming tour that began in Augusta and rolled through Social Circle, Monroe and Bethlehem. Walley rode in the front passenger seat of a Ford F-150 and his motorcade included at least six public safety agencies along the route.
"It feels awesome, really good to be home," Walley said. "I didn't even expect this much."
He was trailed by dozens of motorcycles and passed thousands of people waving American flags and signs and businesses that displayed messages for Walley.
While his 21st birthday is next week -- he was given a pack of beer at the homecoming -- he said he's most excited to see family and friends. And after about eight hours waving out the truck window, he was anxious for air conditioning.
Walley has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington since August, and plans to return in three weeks for a third surgery to have a rod inserted in his left leg.
Attendees at the event arrived at the church about two hours before Walley, including Jamie Mosher and her daughter Jennifer Mosher. The Auburn residents didn't have a personal connection to Walley, but wanted to show their support.
"We believe in supporting the military, in any way we can," Jamie Mosher said. "These boys that come home deserve every ounce of respect and support that we can pay them."
Walley's older brother, Matthew Bradley, has taken care of his affairs at home while Walley's been away.
"It's been humbling, that's for sure, to see all of the support," Bradley said.
When Estes thanked Walley for his service, he replied on Facebook that he would do it all over again so she could play in her backyard.
"He's a very brave kid," said Kori's mother, Tonya. "He doesn't have any sympathy for himself. He's the definition of the fighting spirit."
Thanks to the support of about 40 volunteers, a $14,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation and contributions from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5255 in Lawrenceville among other groups, the Walley's parent's home was renovated to include a 1,200 square foot basement apartment.
Members of the Georgia State Defense Force, a part of the Georgia Department of Defense, helped direct traffic at the event, and earlier this week provided furniture, appliances, dishes and other necessities for Walley's apartment.
"It's the most important thing we do," Capt. Sam Kilburn said.
Bradley said that Walley could return home in a couple months after surgery and rehabilitation. His next stop is to be a weapons inspector at Fort Benning. Walley was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina before he was deployed in March 2012.
As he shook hands and posed for pictures with family, friends and people he met for the first time, the crowd around the parking lot had largely the same feeling about the wounded soldier who returned home.
"I'm so grateful there's somebody like him," Kori Estes said.