As taken from VeroNews.com Stephanie LaBaff’s coverage of our Boots on the Beach event at Riomar Country Club on September 23rd, 2023.

Pictured from left to right: Shelley Kirkland, John Wayne Walding with event hosts Tori and Andrew Barnett. Photo by Joshua Kodis. 

Vero Beach residents laced up their boots to attend Boots on the Beach at Riomar Country Club, which benefited the Boot Campaign. The Texas-based nonprofit, founded in 2009, strives to unite Americans around its mission of honoring and restoring the lives of veterans and military families through individualized, life-improving programs.

Sponsored by Tori and Andrew Barnett and Jim and Jean Ueltschi, the event featured speaker John Wayne Walding, a U.S. Army veteran who served for 12 years, including seven years in the Special Forces Group out of Fort Bragg, N.C.

“I truly appreciate the Vero community,” said Boot Campaign CEO Shelly Richardson Kirkland, a Vero Beach native and Saint Edward’s graduate. “It’s always been one that has been so philanthropic and so dedicated to giving back. It is really an honor to have all of you in this room here tonight to learn a little more about Boot Campaign.”

The nonprofit was founded by five women who had read “Lone Survivor” by Navy SEAL veteran Texan Marcus Luttrell and were inspired to ensure that individuals who risk their lives to protect our freedom receive the support and care they need.

During a brief video, guests heard firsthand from those whose lives were changed through Boot Campaign programs, which provide holistic, individualized care and support to veterans from all military branches and eras of service and their families by treating the root causes of their physical, cognitive and mental health wounds.

A recipient of the Silver Star Medal and a Purple Heart, Walding spent much of his military career in the 3rd Special Forces Group as a Green Beret.

“On April 6, 2008, John [Walding] and his team faced a harrowing battle in Shok Valley [Afghanistan], where he lost his leg yet returned fire for four more hours with his severed lower limb tied to his thigh,” said Kirkland. “He wasn’t done yet. Once you hear from him, you will know that John has more fight in him than almost anyone that I know.”

Walding’s tenacity and grit continued post-injury, attending Special Forces Sniper School and becoming the first amputee to ever become a Green Beret sniper. He also founded several businesses, ran the Army 10-Miler, and Boston and New York marathons.

“My name is John Wayne. I was born on the Fourth of July, and I’m a Green Beret from Groesbeck, Texas,” said Walding as he greeted the crowd.

Recounting that fateful April day, he said their 15-person team went up against 250 Taliban fighters and came out with zero Americans killed, although eight of them were shot and wounded.

“When you’re in the board room and they won’t give you coffee, it’s a bad day. Suck it up, buttercup; nobody’s shooting at you,” said Walding.

While people do ask about the firefight, he said nobody ever asks him about the next day, waking up in the hospital as a 27-year-old Green Beret, one previously able to do anything, but who was now missing a leg.

What he found most challenging was kicking his pain medication addiction and stopping his drinking.

“I could choose pills and be numb, or I could choose pain. The pain lets me know I’m alive and still have one more day on this planet.”

Walding challenged guests to “be worth” the sacrifice he and others have made. Noting that while 7,000 died in the Global War on Terror, that number exceeds 50,000 when it includes those who have died from suicide.

“The magnitude of Boot Campaign’s impact on veterans is worth it. The way that they look at every single veteran individually is groundbreaking. They bring them into a community and actually help them get better,” said Walding.

A current push for the Boot Campaign is shattering the stigma surrounding mental health by promoting the message, “You Matter.”