John Wayne has toured Afghanistan and Iraq, hunted grizzly bears in Alaska and earned the Silver Star; and as of July, he is the first one-legged Soldier to graduate the Special Forces Sniper Course.
SSG John Wayne Walding of Groesbeck, Texas, that is.
In April 2008, Walding and nine other Special Forces Soldiers from a 3rd Special Forces Group assault team were attacked by the Hezeb Islami al Gulbadin while searching for insurgents in Afghanistan’s Shok Valley.
Over the six-and-a-half-hour firefight, more than 150 insurgents were killed. The members of the assault team were each awarded the Silver Star in December 2008 for their courageous actions.Walding, one of several team members injured, took a bullet through his right leg under his knee.
“I ripped off my boot lace and literally tied my leg to my thigh to keep it from flapping around,” he said.After his injury, Walding knew he wasn’t going to give up and leave the Army. He also didn’t want to spend the rest of his career behind a desk.
“You don’t become a Green Beret because you ‘kind of like it,’ you become a Green Beret because you love it, and can’t imagine being anything else,” he said.
While recuperating, Walding worked as an assistant instructor at 3rd SFG’s sniper detachment at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he refused to lower his personal standards because of his injury. But in order to become a full-time instructor, he had to complete the Special Forces Sniper Course at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
During the course, many of Walding’s classmates didn’t even know about his injury and prosthetic leg. Walding said he enjoyed his fellow Soldiers’ reactions after they learned about his missing leg.
“At first, (my classmates) were shocked to realize I was missing a leg,” Walding said. “Then, they realized ‘Wow, he’s doing everything I’m doing!’”
The seven-week Special Forces Sniper Course teaches sniper marksmanship, semiautomatic shooting, ballistics theory and tactical movement. SFC Christopher Owens, an SFSC instructor in 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Warfare Training Group, emphasized the importance of these skills, and said it takes Soldiers like Walding to push themselves to the limits.
“Snipers have become more dynamic over the past 10 years,” Owens said. “Considering current operations overseas, snipers have never been more prevalent, because of the need for distance shooting in rugged terrain.”
Walding said he loves everything about training to be a sniper, particularly the mission and the weapons. He even enjoyed training during the hottest June ever recorded in North Carolina.
“The skill of a Special Forces sniper is unparalleled,” Walding said. “This is the most prestigious sniper school in the world. That means something.”
“There was never a doubt that Walding would do well in this course,” Owens said. “He is extremely motivated, and that never dropped during the course. He never asked for special treatment; he did the same training as everyone else, and scored well in all the exercises.”
That never-quit, Soldier-first attitude is what started him back on the path to Special Forces following the battle in Shok Valley.
During his initial recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Walding set short-term goals for himself. He was a runner before the incident, averaging 50 miles per week. During recovery, he would get up and run a little more every day, always keeping his focus on that next step.
Walding is using the same process to work his way back to an operational role. As a Soldier, his first step was to finish the sniper course; the next step is acting as an instructor for his fellow Soldiers. He’s hoping to work his way back to a place on an operational Special Forces detachment.
“I’m John Wayne, born on the Fourth of July. This is what I was meant to do,” Walding said.