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Photo by Jim Martin

Moving Forward

Bradley Walker has an important ally in his fight to tackle challenges and live an active life

Bradley Walker might hesitate to pronounce the Latin motto of the Wounded Warrior Regiment, of which he is a member, but he lives its message every day. Etiam in pugna. Still in the fight.

Despite losing his legs to an IED explosion in Iraq in 2006, Walker still participates in marathons and warrior games. He leads local veterans’ groups. He and his wife Anna keep up with their active three-year-old son.

He is still in the fight. And beside him, helping him with any challenge, is Bella, his constant companion of five years.

Walker, a native of White Pine, Tennessee, near Dandridge, joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 2002. “My mother had passed away and 9-11 happened, and not long after I felt the call to military service,” he says. He left his father and older brother for what he jokingly calls “a three-month vacation in Parris Island, S.C.,” also known as boot camp. He attended engineer school, and his military occupational specialty (his job) was combat engineer. He became a member of Delta Company’s Fourth Combat Engineer Battalion out of Knoxville.

The first time he deployed it was to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, Africa, in 2005. He served as a camp guard, protecting U.S. assets at the compound. He returned to Knoxville in October of that year.

The next year he volunteered to go to Iraq and deployed in late summer as a sergeant. “We were attached to the Second Battalion Third Marines, and we patrolled looking for weapon caches and IEDs. About two and a half or three months in, I was driving a security vehicle (a Humvee with four other people in it) when we were struck by an IED on the driver’s side wheel well. I took the brunt of the blast.

“The next thing I remember is waking up five days to a week later in Bethesda Naval Hospital. I was intubated, and laying there I tried to pull the tube out. I remember them stopping me. That was not fun at all. I spent a little over a month at Bethesda, then I transferred to Walter Reed Medical Center. Not long after that I started prosthetics training.”

Walker spent a little over two years at Walter Reed learning how to walk again. “It’s a little like walking on stilts,” he says. “Once you learn how to balance, it gets a lot easier.” He also dealt with untangling the red tape to medically retire from the Marine Corps. He returned to Tennessee in 2009.

Bella has been trained to support Walker and aid in his daily routine, such as providing stability on uneven terrain and retrieving items he may need.  Photo by Jim Martin

He also returned to athletics. A former runner who had lost 120+ pounds after high school, Walker became active with Team Semper Fi, a program that promotes rehabilitation and recovery through sports. He competed in the Marine Corps Marathon on the hand cycle, something he continues to do, and the Warrior Games in Carson Springs, Colorado, in which wounded service members from every branch compete. “We won the Champions Cup,” he says matter-of-factly. He competed in the New York City Marathon on the hand cycle in 2011 and played wheelchair basketball. He got involved in U.S. Paralympics sitting volleyball and nearly joined the national team until a blood clot in his leg slowed him down for a bit.

It was also in 2011 that he and Anna renewed their acquaintance from before he joined the Marines.

“We started messaging through Facebook and meeting late at night at the IHOP when she got off work. We enjoyed each other’s company,” he says. They married on January 5, 2015.

But a lot happened in the meantime. In 2013, Walker was accepted into the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops program which provides mortgage-free homes for disabled service members post-9-11. He and Anna found a three-acre lot suitable for the home in the Dandridge area, and in 2014, at the groundbreaking ceremony, he met another female who would become crucial to his wellbeing.

In 2014, Walker and his wife Anna were presented with a new house from the nonprofit Homes for Our Troops. The house is 2,700 square feet and is fully handicapped-accessible. Photo by Hobe Brunson

It was Bella, a three-year-old Golden Retriever trained by Smoky Mountain Service Dogs to work with a disabled veteran. Bella had been trained for another veteran but could not be placed because of that vet’s son’s allergies. Though she happened to be at the ceremony, Bella wasn’t Walker’s dog yet. First, he had to work with Suzy Kitchens, board chair and veterans outreach representative at the nonprofit, to determine what tasks he would need help with. Then he attended a two-week boot camp to learn how to handle the dog and give up to 90 commands. At the Passing of the Leash ceremony, which was attended by everyone who had been involved in her training and upbringing, Bella and Walker became an inseparable pair.

Bella’s primary job is mobility assistance. Her harness includes a bar at the height of Walker’s hand so he can rely on her for support and stability on uneven terrain. She can pick up things he drops, bring him items from across the room, and go for help if he should fall.

“She’s a piece of work,” he says with affection in his voice. “Even her trainers will tell you she can be stubborn. She can take her time about things. But she makes life much easier, especially with a young family. She definitely helps out when we go to the zoo or Dollywood. She helps carry the load.

“It means a great deal to have her by my side. I appreciate everything she does for me. Smoky Mountain Service Dogs is a great organization. I can never thank them enough for all they’ve given to me, allowing me to be active, and helping me do things to be there for my family and enjoy life.”

Walker’s home was completed in December of 2014. A key ceremony attended by Homes for Our Troops representatives, American Legion members, local veterans and community members, included the raising of the American Flag as he was welcomed into the home. It is fully handicapped-accessible, built on one level with widened doorways, a roll-in shower and other accommodations, and provides 2,700 square feet of living space and a two-car garage.

Today, Walker remains active in local veterans’ groups. He is commander of American Legion Post 201 of White Pine and adjutant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 356 of Knoxville. Through those organizations he does what he can to help disabled veterans. He served as a “Big” for Big Brothers Big Sisters of East Tennessee and continues to train for Marine Corps marathons.

“I got a bit of a dad bod for a while,” says Walker, who at 38 years old is tall and lean. He laughingly blames his thinning hair on Anna. “I started eating right and focusing on my health and lost 85 pounds over the last year. I want to be around for a good long while.”

Which brings us back to Etiam in pugna. Still in the fight.

“That says a lot,” he says of the motto. “Even after a big setback, you can still put one foot in front of the other–even if it’s not a real foot. Keep on pushing on. There’s always something to look forward to and keep striving for.”

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