Sneads High School Athletic Director and teacher Zane Grey Walden was a Captain in the US Army Reserves on 9-11, 2001. He figured it was only a matter of time before his officer’s “indefinite” Reserve status would be changed back to “active duty” in some way. That day came about a year and seven months later as he was deployed to the invasion of Iraq in April 2003.
That’s when the military doctrine of “Shock and Awe” became widely known in the US--and especially in Bagdad, Iraq. The US began bombing Bagdad in March 2003 and Capt. Walden’s 851st Quartermaster Company, about 119 soldiers based on Fort Rucker, AL deployed from Benning, Ga., backed up the frontline troops of the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky.
Back at the beginning of his military career, Zane, proved to be good at figuring the mathematical equations needed (with a slide rule back in those days) to tell the artillery how to aim their howitzers. So after joining the Army for four years beginning in 1982, the 1979 Sneads High School graduate was stationed with the 13 Echo Canon Fire Direction Specialists at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the traditional home of US Army artillery. “It’s a science,” Walden explained last Thursday at his 150-head cattle ranch on Gulf Power Road. “Those formative years were the key to my success. I had the privilege of working with great NCOs, including many Vietnam War combat veterans.”
Zane was born in 1961 to Raymond and Faye Walden of Sneads. Raymond farmed and worked at the nearby Gulf Power plant. There weren’t a lot of jobs in the area after high school, Zane explained. ACI at that time included only the east unit, not the newer west unit, and nepotism rules prevented him getting on at Gulf Power. He knew that scholarships and Pell Grants were hard to get or non-existent at that time. “The military offered travel and education,” he said. “I always had been a history buff as well.” (His parents loved the western novels of author Zane Grey so much; they named their son after him.) “However, I was a little disappointed soon after basic and AIT training at Fort Sill to be stationed at nearby Fort Stewart, Ga., as part of the 18th Airborne Corps and the 24th Infantry.”
But in Zane’s last year of active duty in his “4 by 2” contract (four years active duty-two years Army Reserve), Zane would get the chance to “see the world” that he wanted. He was sent to Çakmakli, Turkey, where his 528 Artillery Group soldiers were custodians of the US missiles with nuclear capability--Turkey then as now being a NATO ally. He left active duty as a specialist “promotable,” Walden explained.
It was in Turkey that Zane met his future wife who was also in the all-volunteer Army, the draft being eliminated in the mid-1970s. Elizabeth Gurnsey of Colorado was at Çakmakli and was discharged from active duty in 1985. They were married on Feb. 14, 1986. She wanted to go to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, when they got out of active duty so they did and both were promoted to Sergeant in 1988. Zane and Elizabeth were with the 244th Personnel Service Company where his leadership skills were noticed by Major Bert Veita. The Major got him into OCS as a result and later made him his executive officer, second-in-command. With his commission as a 2nd Lt., Zane’s status with the Reserves switched to “indefinite” but it was still weekends only.
That changed, however, in February 1991. President George H.W. Bush had made the decision to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion and America’s First Gulf War was underway. Lt. Walden was deployed to Fort Lewis in Seattle, Wash., for six months, assigned in getting about 13,000 soldiers ready to go to Saudi Arabia.
After Desert Storm came Zane’s return to Sneads. “We had sent our daughter Iris Faye to the folks back home,” he explained. “When we came home to get Iris Faye, Elizabeth fell in love with this area so we moved back here in 1992.”
Zane, still in the Reserves only, made Captain in 1998 and it was just seven months after being given a command at Fort Rucker, Ala., that 9-11 happened. “My assumption was that my company would go to Afghanistan but that didn’t happen. In February 2003, for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 851st qualified to be deployed and we went first to Kuwait and them across the berm into Iraq.” The “berm” to which Walden referred was a “giant pile of sand on the border of Kuwait and Iraq.”
“I was angry that we had let our guard down before 9-11, and after our success with Desert Storm,” Walden explained as his state of mind at the time. “We had dropped our defenses and let it happen. But like Pearl Harbor, 9-11 made it personal. Being in the military at the time, you want to do something—to get into the fight, so I was very much supportive of the decision to go into Iraq. And we didn’t have any problems getting the personnel we needed.”
Capt. Walden flew to Iraq during the Easter season of 2003, and returned a Major during the Easter season of 2004. He was not on the front lines like the 101st, but his supply convoys came under small arms fire from insurgents many times, and there always was the threat of the deadly IEDs. “Especially when we drove through cities,” Walden explained, “the rifle fire from insurgents or men who had left Saddam Hussein’s Army was frequent. They had abandoned the military but they were still loyal to Saddam.”
Zane was close to the fighting in Tal Afar and Sinjar. “The Army would let the numbers of insurgents coming over from Syria get up to about 300,” he explained, “then go in after about five weeks and wipe them out.” (It was after the Army much later stopped doing that in 2012, that “opened the door for ISIS to come in and grow,” Walden said.) Zane’s company supplied the Airborne Division with fuel, clothing and water which had to be purified for drinking purposes by the tens of thousands of gallons.
“Water was precious over there,” Zane explained. “And we did other things too,” he said. “To try to keep the civilians busy, since Gen. David Petraeus wanted to win their hearts and minds, we built schools. I was involved in the building of more than 20 schools in Northern Iraq that year. We drilled wells for the schools and in my company were guys with all kinds of contracting and carpentry skills. I was blessed with great officers over there, having the chance to meet Gen. Petraeus on a couple of occasions.” Walden also was promoted to Major in Iraq.
Raymond Walden was very ill with cancer when Zane came home after Easter in 2004 but the son was able to spend some quality time with his dad before he passed away in Labor Day Weekend 2004. Zane had received that academic education he wanted, having started teaching in 1996, so he returned to his business and agriculture classes at Sneads High, recently becoming the AD as well. Zane was asked to speak at the Memorial Day 2016 event in Sneads. It was bittersweet--his uncle Nathan Arnold, his mom’s brother and a Vietnam War veteran, had just died on Saturday, May 28. But he gave a short, inspiring talk: “The real heroes are the ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country,” Zane told the Memorial Day crowd. “They show us that freedom is not free and never will be.” Zane closed with, “May God continue to bless and comfort the families of those who have given all they have in service of our Nation. Mostly, I thank God, today, that He continues to Bless this Nation. May We remain One Nation Under God.”