SACRAMENTO — Amid a robust contingent of supporters who gathered at the Sacramento International Airport Tuesday afternoon to give an enthusiastic welcome to a wounded warrior, one young girl held a sign that read: “Penn Valley Loves Its Soldiers.”
Far from being an overstated advertisement about the Nevada County community, it is a declaration bolstered by the outpouring of support for U.S. Army Spc. Brandon Walden, a 20-year-old Penn Valley native who suffered life-threatening gunshot wounds after being attacked July 3 by a man wearing an Afghan National Security Forces uniform.
The support crescendoed Tuesday afternoon as Walden stepped foot back in his native state for the first time in more than a year.
For many months, it was a matter of conjecture whether Walden would ever take a step anywhere again.
He received multiple gunshot wounds during the July attack, but the worst was to his right hip, as a bullet entered his body, bounced from his femur bone and ricocheted throughout his abdomen area, doing severe damage to his intestines and other vital organs.
A subsequent infection created a life-threatening scenario that stretched for about a week. Even after Walden was stabilized, he was in danger of losing his leg as the dangerous bacterial invasion persisted.
Lately, Walden has made steady progress and he told The Union on Tuesday that doctors expect him to recover range of motion sufficient enough to not only walk fluidly, but eventually even to run.
Hours of grueling rehab await, but last week, Walden was granted leave by the U.S. Army to return to his hometown for an eight-day stint.
While Walden was busy recovering from his wounds, western Nevada County residents were rallying to raise funds, write letters of support and otherwise show their appreciation for Walden’s sacrifice to his country. When news hit on Friday that Walden would be coming home, the community sprung into action, with Jay Cooper and Fred Buhler organizing a group to welcome him when he arrived at the airport.
About 50 people broke out into clamorous applause as Walden descended into the airport lobby on the escalator with his arms raised in triumph.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said as his fellow Penn Valley denizens lined up to shake his hand. He then recovered from his astonishment and told a group of reporters that it felt amazing to be home, that he had nothing special planned aside from spending quality time with his family and friends, and that he was happy his trip aptly coincided with the Thanksgiving holiday.
Asked what he was going to do after all the hubbub of his homecoming had died down, he replied:
From the airport, Walden was whisked back to Penn Valley in a procession of Patriot Guards, about 15 motorcycles with American flags unfurled on the rear of their vehicles.
When the procession had filed along Penn Valley Drive, which was flanked by looming oak trees with yellow ribbons tied around their trunks, about 200 residents were waiting at Western Gateway Park.
Walden was ushered up to the stage with his friends and family to raucous applause once again.
“Welcome home, Brandon,” said Nevada County Supervisor Nate Beason, a U.S. Navy veteran. “I have great admiration for your courage, your determination and your persistence.”
After all the speeches, the microphone fell to Walden.
“I just want to thank everyone for showing up here today to show their support,” he said. “I don’t regret a single day I spent over there fighting for our country.”
Amid all the day’s festivities, another homecoming was transpiring in the background, as Laura Cummins, Walden’s mother, was returning to Penn Valley for the first time since July, when she dropped everything — including her job — to be by
her son’s side as he fought for his life.
“I am very grateful,” Cummins told her neighbors, friends and relatives Tuesday afternoon. “Without your prayers and support, we wouldn’t be here.”
Cummins paused to wipe away the tears before concluding with:
“My son is one amazing soldier.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4239.
“I just want to thank everyone for showing up here today to show their support. I don’t regret a single day I spent over there fighting for our country.”
— Brandon Walden