He lost both of his legs serving his country in Vietnam.
That was 46 years ago. But not a day goes by that he can forget.
“I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” said Dave Walas of Tega Cay.
“I don’t know what to say.”
Walas doesn’t like to talk about himself, he says. So, “I appreciate that,” is what he tells them.
On the Fourth of July, Walas will walk three miles at the front of the annual Tega Cay Independence Day parade beside his buddies in the Tega Cay Veterans Association Color Guard.
Though he shies away from the spotlight and talks about himself and his war experiences reluctantly, Walas is proud to have been asked to lead the parade. For months, he has risen early in the morning to train. He will walk next to his good friend, Tega Cay Mayor Pro Tempore and retired Army Lt. Col. David O’Neal, who will carry the American flag.
He is ready.
“It’s not going to be hard at all,” Walas said.
‘A bad place to work’
Walas became a double amputee at 19. He hadn’t been in the Army a year when he was discharged, retired, given some money and left to pick up the pieces of the rest of his life. A teenager, missing his legs and wondering why.
It was a war he didn’t sign up to fight – he was drafted – but it was either fight or run, “Like a lot of our Presidents,” he said. He chose to fight.
Walas was injured when he stepped on a bomb while walking through a Vietnamese jungle. He watched a friend die 10 feet away from him. Losing your legs is bad, but not as bad as that, he said.
“It was just a bad place to work.”
He went to Europe for a decade to find himself after he left Vietnam. Eventually, he got married and started a family. He retired from the post office after 20 years and raised three children. Walas’ late wife, Claudette, passed away two years ago.
Although Walas says he can’t say with certainty that the cause U.S. service members were fighting for was justified, that doesn’t matter much to him now.
“Whether the war’s right or not, people count,” Walas said. “Their families count. The guy that died next to me – Donald Bailey – he was going to go back (to the U.S.) and marry his girlfriend. And then he died, at 19.” His voice trails off, he looks away and stares off into the distance.
‘Call them brothers’
A couple members of the Tega Cay Veterans Association saw Walas riding around the city in his wheelchair and wondered if he was a veteran. One day they stopped him as he was crossing the road at the golf course and asked him if he was a vet and if he wanted to join the group. He was, and he did, he told them.
“Turns out we probably saved him,” O’Neal said.
Walas was drinking a lot at the time and spending a lot of time alone.
“It took him two years to open up to us about what he went through both in Vietnam and as a result of losing his legs and his wife,” O’Neal said.
“When a veteran gets messed up, the whole family suffers,” Walas said.
The Association members asked Walas if he wanted to join the Color Guard. He was hesitant, but finally agreed a few months later.
Then came the hard part – learning the drills on prosthetic legs. He practiced for hours.
“He never got it right until the actual day he needed to do it right,” in front of more than a hundred people at the Memorial Day ceremony at the Living Memorial Gardens in Tega Cay, O’Neal said.
At the ceremony, Ralph Norman, then a candidate for U.S. House District 5 — a race he won last week — unexpectedly called Walas on stage to recognize him.
This year, Memorial Day fell on the exact day he lost his legs 46 years ago.
“It was a very emotional moment for everyone in attendance,” O’Neal said.
Walas’ daughter said that while her father doesn’t like to draw attention to himelf, it meant a lot to him to be recognized.
“Hearing something like that, to him, was actually a huge deal whether or not he showed it,” said Noelle, 18. “Because he hasn’t really stopped talking about it.”
Meeting fellow veterans in the Association has been a great thing for her dad, she said.
“Everything that happened to him (in Vietnam) is kind of closed off somewhere,” Noelle said. “He just loves meeting all these people that have had similar pasts. It’s good that he was able to.”
Walas hasn’t known these guys long, just a couple years, but it feels like forever.
“I call them brothers, no problem,” he said.
‘A really proud moment’
This double amputee war veteran – who insists he’s not a hero – is just days away from beginning his march.
“Being in the front of the parade is a real honor,” O’Neal said. “It’s a really proud moment.”
“To see a guy with no legs walking three miles…wow. Hopefully he’ll inspire young kids to want to go out and do good things.”
O’Neal said he has no doubt that Walas will finish the three miles.
“I guarantee, if he has to crawl all three miles, he’ll make it,” he said. “I think people will get to see what a real veteran looks like.”
Walas will take the first step, and then the next and the next. He’ll pass by hundreds of people – men, women and children, many cheering, some saluting, all looking with admiration at this man carrying a ceremonial rifle and leading the Tega Cay Independence Day parade. And it won’t for a minute be lost on Walas that he’ll be walking – on artificial limbs – next to the flag that he lost his legs defending.
Kelly Lessard: firstname.lastname@example.org, @KellyLessardFMT
Want to go?
What? The annual Tega Cay Fourth of July Parade
When? July 4, beginning at 9 a.m.
Where? Tega Cay Drive
Expect traffic delays. For more info, visit tegacaysc.org