Marine Sgt. Zachary Walters’ entire life seemed to build toward him having a successful career in the military.
But on June 8, less than a month after arriving in Afghanistan, Walters, 24, was killed in action after detonating an improvised explosive device (IED) in the dusty, rocky and dangerous Helmand province of Afghanistan. Sgt. Derek L. Shanfield was killed at the same time after a second IED detonated.
Gina Walters lives in Decatur with her mother, Lore Miner. That’s where she learned of her son’s death.
“A Navy chaplain and two staff sergeants came to the house,” Miner said. “I had just sat down in the rocker and the doorbell rang. As I walked to the front door, I thought that’s not UPS. I saw a tall, black arm. And as I looked, it had three stripes on it. I knew immediately that was a chaplain. When I saw that braid on his arm, I knew it wasn’t a sheriff or Decatur police.”
Walters has been described as a “Marine’s Marine.” His actions were always selfless. He was on the fast track to becoming a commanding officer, but was killed within a month of entering the Afghanistan theater.
Experiences throughout his life guided him to the higher purpose of serving his country.
“He got accustomed to the military lifestyle and the regiment in the Boy Scouts,” said Miner.
“He was influenced from playing sports as a teenager,” Mrs. Walters said. “He liked the camaraderie and being part of a team. It was important to him.”
He was also in the ROTC for all four years during high school.
Walters grew up a world traveler. By the time he enlisted in the military, he had already seen more places than most people see in their entire lifetime. He was born in Saudi Arabia where his father, Kelly Walters of Irving, worked at a desalinization plant.
He later lived in the Virgin Islands, Florida and Irving, where he would visit his grandmother and cousins and aunts and uncles in Wise County and ride four-wheelers through the woods.
Walters joined the Marines one day after he graduated high school in Florida.
“It was something he’d set his mind to do and something he was going to do regardless,” Mrs. Walters said.
Commanding officers were always impressed with his work ethic.
“He was definitely on the fast track,” Mrs. Walters said. “Everyone he came in contact with was very impressed with his intelligence and his dedication. All along the way from when he started, I would hear reports of how well he was doing and all his awards.
“People tried to talk him into joining officer school. But he had it in his head he wanted to do infantry.”
“He wanted to train his own squad,” said Vickie L. Falcon, his fianc e from North Carolina. “And his squad was recognized as one of the best in the entire East Coast.”
He had just completed five years, and he recently re-enlisted for four more. He decided to use a chunk of his re-enlistment bonus to purchase upgraded equipment for the men in his squad.
“Not that the gear they issued wasn’t good, the gear they had was good, but he knew of something better,” Falcon said. “He bought more grenade pouches and ammunition pouches, GPS wrist watches, gloves and sunglasses.”
“He took care of his boys,” Mrs. Walters said. “If you talked to any of them, they were in love with him.”
“They were his brothers,” Falcon said.
Even during down time, when other squads were taking it easy. He would train and exercise with his men constantly.
“He had no problem standing up to people and saying what he thought,” Mrs. Walters said. “No matter what rank they were. If he thought what he was doing was right, he had no compunction about going up to them and saying how he thought about things. And they all respected him for that.”
One reason he re-enlisted was to stay with his squad.
“He’d already trained these guys, and he wanted to go to Afghanistan with them,” Mrs. Walters said. “He had to re-up for four years to do that.”
He was in an advance unit of 50 men, going before the battalion.
“He went on patrol with another battalion that was getting ready to leave Afghanistan,” Falcon said. “He went out to learn the area so that when the Marines got there he would already know the layout. They just went out on patrol to clear a building. And on the way there were two IEDs. Zach stepped on his, and not half a second later Shanfield stepped on his.”
Just like her son, Mrs. Walters has no problem speaking her mind about what she believes, including the war in Afghanistan.
“I think as soon as we leave, everything will go back to the way it was,” Mrs. Walters said. “We’re not changing anything. We’re just allowing people to die for no reason.
“I can’t find any good reason for this war.”
“It’s an unfair fight really,” Falcon said, whose father was in the Marines for 30 years. “As the U.S., we follow the rules of engagement. They don’t care. They send little kids to do things that little kids have no business knowing about. Women and children get hurt, and it makes us look bad.”
Even though the war in Afghanistan looks harder to win with each passing month, Walters felt he could make it a better place.
“He thought he was going to change the world,” Falcon said. “If it was broken, he’d fix it.”
“Anything he started he was going to see it through,” Mrs. Walters said.
“He wasn’t as political as his family is,” Mrs. Walters said. “If he was asked to do it, he’d do it.”
“He was a born leader, good friend and a great leader,” Falcon said.
“The Marines were family to him,” Mrs. Walters said.
Helmand province has become the deadliest region in Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the longest military conflict in United States’ military history.
Coalition casualties have grown every year in the 104-month long war. And IEDs have grown the casualty list exponentially.
Nearly 500 soldiers have been killed in the province, almost all in the past two years. Kandahar, directly to the east of Helmand, is the second deadliest, with 267 coalition deaths.
IEDs are only a recent factor in Afghanistan. Only 39 coalition forces were killed in the first five years by IEDS. But almost 300 were killed by them in 2009 and more than 150 have been killed by IEDs halfway into 2010.
Walters was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“Our freedom isn’t free, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Mrs. Walters said.