BEING born on the fourth of July with a name like John Wayne, arguably few people could be called more American. But for this young Special Forces communications sergeant, the price of freedom was realized April 6, 2008, when he lost the lower half of his right leg to sniper fire during an operation in the Shok Valley of Afghanistan.
That day Walding, a native Texan, and his team ventured into territory previously untouched by coalition forces to capture several high-value targets. The mountain village where the insurgents were hiding had been used to stockpile weapons since the time of the Russian invasion in the 1980s.
With no roads leading into the valley, Operational Detachment-Alpha 3336, along with their Afghan commando counterparts, flew in by helicopter. Upon reaching the infiltration point, the team made a 10-foot jump out of the birds, as the pilots were unable to land. Many of them landed in a waist-deep, icy river, and with the temperatures already around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the climate began to take its toll. In order to reach their target, the group made its way up a treacherous mountainside to the fortress-like village, which rested on a hill at about 10,000 feet.
All seemed quiet as they approached the compound. They knew the enemy was waiting for them, but were unable to tell where. When the lead element came to within a few hundred meters of the compound, they began to receive heavy fire from all directions. What ensued was a six-and-a-half-hour firefight, during which the team called in Air Force F-15s for danger-close air support 70 times. More than 150 insurgents were killed in the fight. But but due to approaching weather, rising casualties for the team, and nearly 200 insurgents closing in on their position, they were forced to withdraw.
Unfortunately, the approach route the team used to reach the village had been cut off. Stuck between a hail of gunfire and the edge of a cliff, their only option was to go down the cliff face. With intense firing still coming upon them, the team quickly scaled the mountain using rocks and branches growing out of the cliff. Every member of the team had sustained some form of injury, so the less injured helped the more critical casualties down the sheer face. Walding, having been shot near the knee by a sniper, tied his nearly severed leg to his thigh and began his descent. In order to reach the solid ground below, once he reached the bottom of the climb he, along with the others, had to make a 20-foot drop.
Walding and his teammates showed true bravery, bringing everyone off of the mountain despite the odds. Because of their teamwork and camaraderie, the 10 members of ODA 3336 present that day all returned safely, and were each awarded the Silver Star, Dec. 12, 2008. "When you become a Green Beret, you become part of a brotherhood that you get nowhere else," Walding said.
For more information on the Shok Valley battle, see the May 2009 issue of Soldiers.