Samuel Walley’s mind was clear as the blast separated the soldier from the earth and two of his limbs, lifting him 20 feet on a cloud of dust and adrenaline and death.
He’s younger than he looks, leaning forward over a coffee table in the over-air-conditioned lobby of the Martha T. Nesbitt Academic Building at the University of North Georgia Gainesville campus. Covered in tattoos but holding onto the clean-cut military haircut, he navigates life using a prosthetic leg and a head full of experience and memories that most 26-year-olds in Gainesville are blessed to be without.
He’s the son of a construction worker father, Kelly Walley, and a mother, Connie Walley, who in his early life worked cleaning churches but now works with Project ADAM, a drug-rehab ministry in his hometown.
He’s a former soldier of the 82nd Airborne Division and was very close to being killed while deployed to the Zhari district near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
These days, he’s a student of political science at UNG with hopes of getting into politics to help make life a little easier for veterans. He’s lived in Gainesville since leaving the Army in 2014.
“He’s been very instrumental in all of our fundraiser events, and he’s been a big supporter of For The Warriors Foundation,” said Mike Seely, a retired airman and former brigadier general in the Georgia National Guard. “I can’t say enough about him. He’s been very energetic, very dedicated.”
Most of all, Walley’s recovered — from his wounds, from the nightmares that followed him home from Afghanistan, from the deaths and suicides of his former squad mates who returned stateside and, for one reason or another, couldn’t find their own recovery.
“These are the guys you have to turn back to. You have the biggest commonality with them,” Walley said, describing bonds that form tighter than family in the midst of firefights, bomb sweeps and patrol after patrol.
His connection to his fellow soldiers was forged tight in the stress of war: Killing, seeing friends be killed and navigating through a prolonged war in rural Afghanistan.
“When you get out, everybody is going to deal with their demons whether it’s 7 weeks after returning stateside or its 20, 30 years down the road,” Walley said.
He paused, and then added: “We’ve lost four guys in my platoon stateside.”
‘I wanted to be in the fight’
Walley was born June 4, 1993. He attended County Line Elementary, Russell Middle and Winder-Barrow High School. He graduated in 2010.
He always wanted to be in the military, though didn’t know what branch. For about a decade he aimed for the Marine Corps, but his time in Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps in high school taught him that he’d be more at home following his father, who served as a combat engineer, into the Army.
Looking at early enlistment as an upperclassman at Winder High, his choices of role in the Army were whittled down to four: infantry, supply, truck driver, combat journalist.
“My mom wanted me to be a combat journalist,” Walley said, chuckling, “but there’s no way I was about to go get shot at and not have a firearm to shoot back.”
He wanted a combat role — wanted to “be in the fight somehow,” he added. “The best way to do it was infantry. So I picked infantry.”
He wanted not just to serve but to fight because of 9/11. Though he was just a fourth grader, he remembers the “absolute chaos” of the day terrorists flew two jets into the World Trade Center, killing 2,977, and a third into the Pentagon, killing 125.
“I remember talking to my parents later that day, starting to understand what just happened,” Walley said, thinking back to 2001, “but you’re still a kid. I don’t think I started to fully understand the concept of America being attacked until probably high school.”
Young children don’t think much of the world beyond the confines of their neighborhoods, he said. Your parents know it all, the world works in a fixed, routine way and the bad guys out there are relegated to bedtime frights and TV.
But Walley got older, and he learned what being attacked meant for a nation that went from enjoying the Peace Dividend to being the victim of the deadliest terrorist attack on the planet.
“You learn that you’re not the only one in this world,” he said.
Ready for war
The food was good in Kyrgyzstan, one of the stops along the way from Fort Bragg to the Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan.
Eating, waiting and sitting through briefing after briefing — jokes about Microsoft PowerPoint forever rumble through the ranks of the Army — punctuated Walley’s days between February and March 2012.
But into March, he was in the thick of Operation Enduring Freedom, leaving the huge airfield for a tiny station at Pan Kalay. On the way, he would get his first taste of combat in the form of a few tiny tinking sounds while on board a Chinook bound for the outpost.
“We got shot at by a guy in the middle of the desert. He was shooting at us with an AK. That guy, they lit him up. He was dust. He was nothing,” Walley said. “That’s when it hit me. All I heard was like little tinks, that’s it. But after you look out in the field and see this guy and see him get disintegrated, you realize, ‘Oh. This is real. This is no longer on paper. This is no longer a game. This is real s--t.’”
He would first enter combat while on patrol at Pan Kalay, a station of about 100 American soldiers and members of Afghanistan’s national army.
“I can’t really remember times where we went outside the wire and didn’t get in a firefight,” he said. “The way we did our rotation was three days on, three days off. We would have three days of going on patrol, and those first three patrols — those stuck out to me the most.
“After that, you forget what number it is. It just all starts to become a big blur.”
Walley lost his right leg, his left arm and almost his life because of a bicycle.
June 6, 2012, started as a normal day — or a routine day, as there wasn’t much normal to go around for soldiers in the Zhari district near Kandahar.
Unlike Pan Kalay, Zhari was just a checkpoint not much larger than a football field. It was home to about 30 soldiers.
Two days before — Walley’s 19th birthday — a higher-up in the Taliban had been captured by his platoon within the 82nd Airborne Division. Agitated by the loss, the terrorist group was expected to step up activity in the region.
“(We were) going out, going to observe new areas, looking for IED caches, weapon caches, just really getting to know the terrain like it’s the back of your hand,” Walley said. “We just call it presence patrols, going out and showing face.”
Navigating new territory in Afghanistan is a stressful, slow process. And out front goes the mine sweeper.
He’s “worried about looking at the ground checking for IEDs, that’s their job,” Walley said. “There’s a guy behind him, the team leader ... that would clear the ground with poker chips. You know if you need to move in and out of an area, you go along the poker chips because you’re not going to step near an IED.”
On June 6, Walley’s platoon pushed to the north of the compound where the Taliban commander had been captured, crawling over grape rows in the countryside when they happened upon a group of four men in what had been established by U.S. forces as a kill zone.
“We pop up out of the grape row and start questioning them. One guy takes off on a bike,” Walley said. “I just spoke a little, tiny amount of Poshtun — enough to yell at people and get by. You could tell they were lying.”
Through a translator, the men were told to clear the area or potentially be killed if they were seen again.
The man on the bike
“Now, we’re worried on this guy on the bike that had just taken off,” he said.
The soldiers followed his trail to a two-story structure with bars on the windows, an unusual find for that area of rural Afghanistan.
“It was an L-shaped compound. It was two floors. To get up to the top floor, there was a hill,” Walley said. “That’s where the road was. What we were going to do to get this guy on the bike was get one team on one side of the road and wait for another team on the other side of the road.”
They called in a helicopter that would cut off the man fleeing on his bicycle and, hopefully, flush him back toward the waiting soldiers. In the meantime, they cleared the structure and found a dull knife and burn marks on the floor — clear signs that IEDs were being made in the building.
“All my Spidey senses are going off. Something is wrong,” he said.
Others in his platoon searching the structure had just passed into the main chamber, the longest room of the L-shaped structure.
“I look in the door, the long part of the L they just went into, and there’s a wire hanging out of the wall,” he said. “Nobody had noticed it. My heart sank — at that point, you feel like puking.”
There was a bomb planted somewhere in the building.
His team rushed out of the compound. At the same time, they got word the helicopter they called in cut off their target on the bicycle early and they had only a few minutes to prepare to snatch him on his way back.
All the while, they didn’t know where the IED was.
With no time to set up an ambush for their target on the roadway, Walley looked for the signal from his leader to improvise.
“With that amount of time, you had literally seconds to react,” he said. “I remember hearing the bike, and I just looked across at my squad leader. All he did was nod at me. There was no time.”
A capture, at this point, felt out of the question. There was too much at risk — a bomb in the area, no time to prepare for a transport and enemy fighters likely in the area.
“I’ll be God honest, in my head I was just going to shoot him,” he said. “If something goes bad, it could go really bad and it could be all three of our lives done.”
After the signal from his leader, Walley cut wide on the building, doing his best to avoid the edges of the structure where insurgents were known to plant IEDs. He rounded the corner to catch the target as he followed the road down its descent from the top of the structure to the bottom.
Adrenaline pumping, heart in his throat, Walley lifted his weapon, ready to track the target as he rounded the road.
He felt heat, and a short moment later a weightlessness. His mouth was filled with dirt, and he attempted to stand but couldn’t figure out why his legs weren’t supporting him or his arms lifting him.
His medic pulled him from the dust cloud, which the rest of the soldiers back at the Zhari checkpoint saw rise into the sky. Walley’s right leg was severed above the knee, his left arm wrecked and dangling. Shrapnel pocked his left leg, but it remained intact.
“(The insurgents) ended up detonating the IED off to the right of me — right beside this trail that we all just walked in on,” he said. “Nobody picked up the IED.”
In the aftermath of the blast, someone managed to grab the man on the bike. He was “bagged and tagged,” Walley said, and carted off to who-knows-where. The soldier never learned who he was.
Walley was medevaced and on the operating table in fewer than 20 minutes. He held it together and didn’t go into shock until the field surgeon removed what remained of his left arm and placed it in a little garbage bag with a biohazard symbol on it.
He would have nightmares about that moment for years.
“When I first met him, it’s been over 3-and-a-half years, some of that was affecting him a lot,” said Mike Seely, discussing Walley’s wounds both external and internal.
He had been through dozens of surgeries at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, D.C. In that time, he was visited by President Barack Obama, senators, congressmen, professional athletes, leaders of veterans groups and advocates — most of them just wanting to express their thanks, some looking for an easy photo-op with a wounded vet.
He didn’t walk again until 2013. When he was discharged from the medical center, he was overweight from months of being bound to a wheelchair.
“Even though I could walk in the summer of 2013, I don’t think I got (back to normal) until probably a little over a year ago,” he said.
With limited movement and a lot of pain, Walley started another fight stateside, this one against bad dreams, isolation and anger.
“The military is really great on taking a civilian and converting them into a killing machine,” Seely said. “The one thing they’re not good at is converting them from a killing machine to a productive member of society.”
Those early years of civilian life weren’t good ones for Walley, who tried to treat his ailments with the usual salves: Alcohol, misbehavior, resentment.
“His attitude wasn’t a good one,” Seely said. “The Sam that I knew when I first met and the Sam that I know today you’d say are two different people. He’s grown a lot in the past almost four years.”
Through the work of veterans groups, especially Seely’s own For The Warriors Foundation, the soldier was able to turn his life around through “exposure to another element,” Seely said.
He enrolled at UNG, got back into a gym routine and now practices Jiu Jitsu — each new step breaking down walls vets struggling through PTSD erect around themselves.
But they haven’t come down easy.
He’s been a student at UNG for most of the past four years but is just now making real progress with his education. Initially, he was in so much pain from walking the campus that he couldn’t manage his schedule.
And then, the past few years have been punctuated by the stateside suicides of soldiers in his old platoon.
“Unfortunately, it’s almost separated my platoon a little bit,” Walley said. “We all came together when it would happen, but some guys would slowly distance themselves just because of the pain it caused a lot of us.”
A new way
The 26-year-old soldier has held himself together both by being helped and helping others. Emerging from isolation, Walley is now an involved member of three organizations: For The Warriors Foundation, the local American Legion Post 7 in Gainesville and the PTSD Foundation of America.
For The Warriors is focused on reintegrating vets back into daily life — helping them form connections that keep them out in the community in order to “fully integrate back into society and live a rewarding, fulfilling and productive life,” according to its mission statement.
This comes in the form of golf tournaments, networking events and other activities.
And then there’s the American Legion, long run by veterans of the Vietnam War, the last war in which men were drafted and the last mass-service war in the nation’s history.
Walley has been a member of the Legion since he left the Army, but in recent months has worked to bring younger veterans into the organization.
“If they don’t have new people coming in the bottom, they’re not going to survive,” said Seely, himself a Vietnam veteran. “What Sam is doing is very perceptive, very proactive.”
In mid-June, Walley helped organize an open house at Post 7 specifically to recruit post-Vietnam vets.
“I really want to start getting these Gulf War, (Operation Iraqi Freedom) — getting these guys into these board positions. I simply came out and started trying to get these guys together,” he said. “I don’t really care to be in a leadership role or anything, I just knew that I knew a lot of people.”
His efforts are aimed at helping veterans forge connections with one another and the community at large.
“A lot of these guys aren’t encouraged to evolve from their past experiences into their new experiences, their new world,” Seely said. “If you don’t have exposure to healthy, happy lifestyles and you see what the alternative is to isolationism, you’re not going to grow. A lot of these guys who have committed suicide, it’s tragic when you look at what could have been done to prevent that.”
For the worst cases, the PTSD Foundation is one of the groups working to fill that void.
It handles “more of the nitty-gritty stuff,” Walley said. “That’s (for) the veterans who are in dark areas. Helping them, sometimes we’ll have to go to the Salvation Army to see if there are vets in there.”
The foundation runs an intensive camp, similar to a boot camp, in Houston, Texas, where veterans are broken down and, instead of being turned into soldiers, are turned back into citizens.
Despite the wedges of suicide pushed between the fellow soldiers in his platoon, Walley’s connections to his friends remains strong. He knew, he said, that he could pull his phone out of his pocket and dial any of them — just to talk, to vent, to ask for help.
He recalled his time in the VA hospital in Washington, when a fellow soldier was hassling a down-and-out Walley to get to work on his PT.
“My old squad leader used to give me crap in the hospital because he’s a quad-amputee, and he’s walking around,” Walley said, laughing. “He’d always tell me, ‘Walley, you need to get to walkin’.’”
His interview with The Times was scheduled after he finished with classes for the day. Toward the end of the talk, Walley’s girlfriend sat down with him. They talked about their plans for the evening, about whether he was going to head to the gym and what they might do for dinner that night.
Seven years after a terrorist flipped the switch that almost ended his life, Walley is walking just fine.