John Wayne Walding.
Born on the 4th of July.
Green Beret. Sniper.
Custom Gun Builder.
Let’s start with the name: with a name like John Wayne, you had better be tough. As I ponder the impact of having a name like John Wayne, famous quotes from another John Wayne come to mind like “Think you can make it, Pilgrim?” and “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” I have to wonder if John’s parents whispered these and other nuances into his ear as he was growing up to instill this toughness in him from the beginning.
Secondly, the birthday. Born on the 4th of July. I can’t help but recall the biography Born on the 4th of July about Ron Kovic, paralyzed in the Vietnam War, who became an antiwar and pro-human rights political activist after feeling betrayed by the country he fought for. The struggles Ron went through when he returned were enormous. The disdain and lack of support from the citizens he fought for as they cried out “Baby Killer!” and threw shit at him. My own Dad who is a Vietnam Vet and is currently the Executive Director of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial tells similar stories of when he returned from the War. People throwing rocks at the buses, spitting on him at the airport, the complete lack of support, the utter hatred of anyone in uniform. Thankfully, when I first met John, there was no sense of anger towards his country. John appeared thankful for the chance to have served his country and truly appreciated the response from citizens as he returned from his tour of duty. “Just those two words, thank you, goes a long way” John says. John is the most patriotic person I have ever met and inspires me to be a better American every day. But you can’t miss the obvious sense of destiny with a name like John Wayne and a birthday on our nation’s independence day.
You add up the name and the birthday, plus sprinkle in a bit of Texas “Come and Take it” ‘tude, and you get the makings of someone destined for something larger than himself. This explosive American formula drove John to enlist, but simply enlisting wasn’t enough. He needed to be the best he could be; to put himself into a position where he would be pushed even harder than he would ever push himself – become a Green Beret.
This same courage in the face of almost certain death is what propelled him up the mountain that fateful day, April 6, 2008, as a Special Forces Communications Sergeant in ODA 396/3336 in the battle of Shok Valley. During that battle, John’s unit was consumed by enemy fire, resulting in him being shot in his right leg. Ultimately leading to John’s leg being amputated below the knee. If ever there was a time to drum up that innate mental and physical fortitude, it was right then and there. The arduous and treacherous task of getting down the mountain with his limp leg tied to his thigh by the bootstraps, the perils of the airlift out of the battle, the amputation and painful recovery process; it all brought a whole new meaning to the quote “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
John being John didn’t let all of this dissuade him from his calling. When given the opportunity, he decided to re-enlist only to become the first amputee to complete the arduous sniper training course he attended. After learning John’s story, I can honestly say, if you want tough, you got it. If you want American, you got it. If you want inspiration, you got it.
I first met John briefly out at Rough Creek Lodge one iced-over weekend. Only the Craft team and my group were crazy enough to make it out to Glen Rose in sub-arctic temperatures and roads covered in ice and snow. That meeting set in motion a series of events that led me to sit with John over lunch and discuss the concept of Shoulders of Giants. It didn’t take long until John was in. We ended up having 10 dads and sons come out for a wonderful day of gun safety and instruction, shooting at the range and dinner at the lodge. All of the attendees – adults and children alike – walked away with something special from that day. Not to mention, John sold three guns and we raised $10,000 for the Green Beret Foundation.
Since the shoot, I’ve gotten to know John better. John the father. John the husband. John the Founder/CEO/Janitor of 5 Toes Custom Rifles. John says things like, “Hell, at least we’re not being shot at!” I think to myself, isn’t it all about perspective? When I look at what I perceive as trials and tribulations in my life, it’s never been, and hopefully will never be, as bad as April 6, 2008, was for John. Flipping back through our family photos from Spring of 2008, I see pictures of my wife Julie, pregnant with our yet-to-be-born Chloe. Her stomach looking like she just ate a whole watermelon, smiling with anticipation. In one month from the day John was shot, Chloe would be born. The next picture is my middle daughter Remi standing in the kitchen looking up at me as I snap the picture. She’s only wearing pants and a hat. No shirt,grinning from ear to ear. The next is my 4-year-old son playing the drums completely in the buff. My life at that time was worlds away from Shok Valley. I’m sure even then I had issues I was dealing with.
Something didn’t quite go my way. Someone at work pissed me off. Whatever. One thing is for certain, I wasn’t being shot at. To think our men and women were losing limbs or even worse, dying in a foreign land, in order to afford me the peace and happiness reflected in my family pictures – a mere “thank you” just doesn’t seem like enough.
So, yes, if you spend time with John at one of his many training events, you will learn how to shoot like a sniper. That’s what he taught me and the rest of the group last May. But the real lessons I’ve learned from John really come from being around him. His excitement about what he does. His dedication to his craft. His devotion to his wife and family. His values. This is where the real lessons come. This is what Shoulders of Giants is all about.