From tragedy to triumph
November 20, 2012
Army Sgt. Ashley A. Walker, a military police officer with the 425th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division has experienced a year marked by heartbreak and triumph.
Tragically, Ashley lost her husband, Army Sgt. Brian L. Walker, also an MP with the 425 BSTB, when he was killed by an improvised explosive device during a combat mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom May 13 near Bowri Tana, Afghanistan.
He was the vehicle commander in the lead vehicle when it was struck by the IED. Pfc. Richard L. McNulty III, another paratrooper with the 425th BSTB, was also killed in the explosion.
Through her own inner drive, inspiration, memories of Brian, and support from close family members, Ashley has been able to motivate herself to move forward in life without him.
Ashley used her tools of motivation when she, along with other elite softball players from around the Army, won the gold medal for the 2012 All-Army Women's Softball Team Sept. 20.
"It's for him, everything is for him," Ashley said of Brian.
Both Walkers deployed together with the 4-25th in November 2011, but were assigned to separate locations while in theater. He was stationed at a small combat outpost remote to Forward Operating Base Salerno, and she was stationed at FOB Gardez.
Ashley's sister, Spc. Amber Caswell who is a Chemical, Biological, Radiology, and Nuclear Specialist is with the 425 Brigade Special Troops Battalion, and her stepbrother, Spc. Justin Stephenson is an infantryman with the 509th Infantry Battalion.
All four family members deployed together last year in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Ashley, Brian, and Caswell all went on rest and recuperation leave together, then just six days after returning to Afghanistan, Brian was killed.
Ashley said they agreed to have an internet date that day, but because of no response from him online, and then a black-out which stopped her from using online services, their date never happened.
She was then notified of Brian's death by her chain of command.
Caswell was a co-escort and helped Ashley by comforting her during Brian's final flight back to the United States.
The Walkers first met each other while they were stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., where they were both assigned to the 16th Military Police Brigade. They had a strong bond and connection which culminated into love and marriage in 2010.
During Brian's first deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, Ashley deployed on a humanitarian mission to help the country of Haiti after a major earthquake struck there.
She was in Haiti from January to June 2010, so she was not able to spend time with Brian during his R&R. He still went back to her hometown without her to meet her father and ask for her hand in marriage. Her father approved and they were married later in the year.
Brian always supported Ashley, especially her love for softball. He encouraged her to put in her request to play packet again this past year.
Ashley has been on three All-Army Women's Softball Teams dating back to 2010, winning the gold her first year, the silver her second year, and the gold again this year.
Brian would often go to watch Ashley play with the All-Army team, so a lot of her teammates knew him. He even drove to Florida one year for a tournament.
"We got arm bands made with Brian's initials B.W. embroidered on them and the whole team wore them during all of our games," Ashley said.
After the team won the title and the gold medal, they huddled together and chanted "Brian" in celebration and remembrance, she said.
She said the team helped her cope a little with the loss of Brian by allowing her to be herself. She said when she wanted to talk about Brian she could, because they knew him.
While deployed in Afghanistan, and with full support from Brian, Ashley submitted her packet to request a chance to play on the 2012 All-Army Women's Softball Team. Brian really wanted her to play. She said he thought it would be a great way for her to still serve and represent the Army, but it would also remove her from harm's way in Afghanistan.
Ashley's deployment ended after Brian's funeral and as a result of being selected to play on the 2012 All-Army Women's Softball Team. She competed for a spot and earned a position as third baseman for the team.
The Army hosted this year's tournament at Fort Sill, Okla. The team played each of the other services three times each. The All-Army team won as a result of having the best overall record of eight wins and one loss.
Ashley was selected as one of 15 players for the All-Tournament Team. The team's 15 members are recognized for being the best players in the tournament.
Ashley was further recognized by being selected to play on the All-Armed Forces Team.
The All-Armed Forces Team picks the best players from all of the forces to play against top rated civilian teams from across the nation. Ashley moved over to 1st base for the All-Armed Forces Team, and they placed 2nd overall at the tournament in Oklahoma City.
Ashley was recognized as an outstanding player on many levels, but she said the biggest achievement was winning the gold medal.
"The most important part is playing for the gold medal, and we won it this year," she said.
She said she really enjoys playing on the All-Army Team, and enjoys seeing new places.
"It's quite an experience. You get to meet some really awesome girls," she said.
She said the loss of her husband has not fully sunk in, and the hurt will never go away, but playing softball gave her mind a break from thinking about it all of the time.
"The team helped by just being there and being great, and not bringing it up, and letting me be me," she said.
She said around certain places it feels weird because people look at her in an odd way.
"I felt normal there, not like a circus clown, you know? Like, oh look, her husband was killed", she said. "They made me feel normal. I guess that is the biggest part that helped. Because I am, but I'm just stuck in a deep rut."
"I think what helps me get through is I know what he wants, and what he would want me to do," she said. "Every time I feel like I can't make this, I'm just like, 'oh! This is what he would say,' or 'this is how he would do it.'"
"Even though he is not here, he still helps me through, because nobody else can. I'm just like, 'OK, I have to do this for Brian,'" she said.
Ashley said Brian would not want her to be sad, so she tries to keep a positive outlook on life.
"He would not want to see me cry, so I just try to smile all the time," she said.
"I want people to know that he is the one that inspired me, and that's why I do what I do," she said.
Ashley had close support and was comforted by her sister, Spc. Amber Caswell, during some of her most difficult times.
"We are really close, we're like best friends," Ashley's sister, Spc. Amber Caswell said. "She is really tough anyway. She would have gone through it with or without me, but I hope I made things easier for her."
"Their love was unbelievable," Caswell said as she wiped away tears. "It was like a fairytale that should be written."
"It was just perfect. It was what everyone looks for, and they had it, and everyone was just so jealous," Caswell said. "It was like a fairy tale that came true, and it just ended."
Leaving tears for laughter, Caswell spoke of her relationship with Brian.
"He was always looking out for me," Caswell said.
Brian and Caswell would often pick on each other and joke around.
"He hated the word shut-up, and I would always be like, Brian, shut-up. He'd get so mad, so I would say I'm sorry Brian. Please be quiet," she said with a smile.
Before the tragedy, all three paratroopers went on rest and recuperation leave together to visit the sisters' family in Arizona.
"Brian loved our family," Ashley said.
Ashley said Brian and members of her family were really close. Brian and a few of her family members formed a group they called "The Wolf Pack". She said it was a name they used as a way to bond with each other and have fun.
"They were a goofy group when they got together, she said.
Brian also had a love for helicopters. He wanted to be a pilot, and had recently purchased some aviation books online to study for the entrance exam for the U.S. Army's flight school.
"Brian was all about helicopters," Ashley said "He loved helicopters."
She said he quickly outgrew the small radio controlled helicopters you can buy at many department stores, so when they were on leave in Arizona, he bought a nice one from a local hobby shop.
"The first day we had to spend $100 on parts because he just crashed it!" Ashley said as she laughed at the memory.
She said she had a tattoo made on her arm in his memory which includes a picture of a helicopter in its design.
Ashley and Caswell said Brian established bonds with many members of their family to include their 2-year-old niece, Payton Miller.
Ashley said Payton would often watch him play with his helicopter. One day he crashed his helicopter on the roof of the house.
To which, Payton said, "Brian, copter fall down?"
Caswell said Brian and Payton had a special bond.
"She points to her heart and says, Jesus and Brian in my heart," Caswell said.
Ashley said Brian loved kids and they planned to have some of their own someday.
"One of the last conversations we had was about having kids when we got back," she said.
Ashley bought a 1959 Chevrolet Apache for Brian while they were on R&R together. He loved the thought of restoring it, so she plans to rebuild it along with some help from "The Wolf Pack" who have already volunteered to donate their time to restore it in memory and tribute to Brian.
Although Ashley has "not really coped with it," as she would say, she has found a way to keep moving forward in life.
"He gave his life so I could live mine, and I'm not going to waste it," she said.
"I still have to accomplish things that I set out for and it kind of gives me more motivation, because I have something to work more for, even though nobody notices," Ashley said. "I just want people to know that even if he is not here right now, he is. That's all."