U.S. Marine veteran Dennis Walters remains active through a variety of activities despite suffering from a spinal cord tumor caused by exposure to Agent Orange while on duty in Vietnam. Photo courtesy Dennis Walters
If you’ve lived in Walton County for any length of time and ever attended an event in support of military veterans, chances are you’ve seen Dennis Walters.
He’s the man in the Marine uniform standing to salute the flag or to put his hand over his heart for the National Anthem — before sitting down in his wheelchair for the rest of the ceremony.
He also was involved in helping get the word out, and the funds in, for the construction of the Walton County Veterans Memorial that opened in 2018.
Walters served in the Marine Corps from 1970 to 1977, during the Vietnam War era, and still holds very strong allegiance to the Marines. He does, however, bear scars from that conflict but those came many years later.
In 2004, he developed a spinal cord tumor as a result of the Agent Orange that he was exposed to during his time in the military. And by 2005, after having the surgery to remove it, he ended up in a wheelchair.
But if anyone thought that would deter him from living his life to the fullest, they would be oh so wrong. At 70, not only is he still living his best life, but he is probably living a life that would be the envy of many a much younger adventurer.
His latest adventure was the 2023 ChattaJack on Oct. 28, 2023 – a 31-plus mile paddle board/kayak race through the Tennessee River Gorge.
Michael Hurndon (back) and Dennis Walters (front) in the 2023 ChattaJack on Oct. 28, 2023. Contributed photo
“A friend of mine, Michael Hurndon, said he believed I could do it. He didn’t force me into it — he just said, ‘I think you can do it. We’ll get you into the boat and you can just paddle,’ … and with that I accepted his challenge,” Walters said. “We practiced for about two and a half months and I can tell you from one end of Lake Allatoona to the other is 27 miles.”
The two-man team of Hurndon and Walters, calling themselves “Team Boomer — The Marine and The Ranger,” did themselves proud. In this year’s ChattaJack they came in a very respectable third place in the Men’s Tandem Kayak classification.
“It was amazing,” Walters said. “There were more than 700 entries from I believe 37 countries this year — from Sweden, Canada, China, all over. The first year it had 50 entries, but it has grown to, I believe, 770 this year. It starts at the aquarium in Downtown Chattanooga and when that gun goes off at the start it looks like a bunch of ants that scatter when somebody stands on an ant hill.”
Walters said Hurndon is his kayak mentor.
“We do whitewater as well — that is a single vessel rather than double. He is an Army Ranger so we do have some picking and shoving about Army and Marines —but we’re brothers,” he said.
Hurndon has high praise for his Marine brother, noting that his team buddy “laid it down and emptied the tank fully in the Chattajack 31, pulling us to the finish in 5 hours and 14 mins. Team Boomer finished around the top 25% of the 750+ competitors. It was both a grand adventure and an arduous undertaking. I had the absolute privilege of being in the same boat with the most elated paddler in the Nation on this day. Somehow Dennis seems to always beat me by exactly 6.26 feet,” Hurndon said. Walters takes the front seat in the two-man vessel. “It’s pretty fulfilling to have fuel to reel-in a few boats at the very end. Proud beyond words of my Battle Buddy & favorite Marine.”
But the ChattaJack was just Walters latest adventure. It is by no means his only one. When he first got the diagnosis and was told there was nothing much that could be done for him, he decided that was not acceptable, not acceptable at all.
“When that doctor first told me to go home and die, yes he said that, it scared me,” Walters said. “I didn’t have time for a pity party and I knew that was not what I was going to do. Now I get into things I probably wouldn’t have,” he said. “And I try to encourage others not to sit in a chair. There is so much more to life.”
Some of the other things that Walters finds time to do — scuba diving, sometimes with sharks in the aquarium in Atlanta, water skiing, snow skiing, rock climbing, horse riding — you name it and he’s game to try it.
“I go horse riding with a group in Social Circle,” said Walters, who lives in the Good Hope area of Walton County. “I scuba dive with a group called Life Waters out of St. Louis, Missouri – when I can, when they have a spot available. The last several times we’ve swam with the sharks in the Atlanta Aquarium. I have to go to Virginia to snow ski — Breckenridge won’t take me.”
Walters said Breckenridge Ski Resort, and other organizations, are sometimes concerned about liability issues and he understands that, but he doesn’t let it deter him. He just finds somebody else who is prepared to take a chance on him and many welcome him with open arms.
“When that doctor literally told me to go home and die, I made up my mind right then I wasn’t going to get depressed and let that impact me,” Walters said. “I completely changed directions and started getting into whatever I could get into. It makes me feel a lot better about myself. People see me do this and it sparks their interest and they sometimes become supportive of people in wheelchairs who all need support — to drive you somewhere or they will help financially like paying entrance fees. It’s great to have supporters. Shepard center helped me get my drivers license. I was like 16 twice. I have the adaptation on my vehicle.”
Walters said it is amazing when somebody says they will take a chance on you. He sometimes can see the wheels turning and instinctively knows when somebody is going to just say no.
“Instantly ‘No,’ — that big capital ‘No,’” he said. “but I’ve really been blessed. I think the good Lord’s got my back. You can’t focus on the negativity. So when I get a no, I just look for someone else who is willing to say, ‘I’ll take a chance on you.’”
And he counts himself lucky, “and blessed,” that his wife, Sandra, is his biggest supporter.
“She was shocked at first. She got the news the same time as I did. But then she gradually saw I wasn’t taking no for an answer. The VA said they know this guy in Missouri and I said yes immediately. Water skiing from sitting in a wheelchair was something unusual, but she finally came around to the idea that I wasn’t going to be sitting in a wheelchair for the rest of my life,” Walters said. “She sometimes gets nervous, but she gets a thrill out of seeing me have fun, especially when somebody has told me no and I’m able to do it anyway with somebody else who was prepared to take a chance.”
Walters said when his wife expresses concern over something, he knows he probably needs to think twice about it.
“When she says, ‘Honey, you sure you want to do this?’ then I know she’s really concerned and I know I probably need to think over it a little more. Like one thing I still want to do is jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, but that could be dangerous with my injury. I’ve been told that the jerk when the parachute opens could snap my neck, so I need to think on that one.”
So what is his next big adventure?
“I have been contacted by the National Parks about diving over the USS Arizona to change the flag out. They have the last person of the USS Arizona buried there so nobody else is going to be buried undersea there now,” Walters said. “I wanted to go last year, but my people up in Missouri were out. But this year, I’m going to try my best to do it. I will need to go to Hawaii and then out to Pearl Harbor, but it is something I want to do.
“A lot of things I haven’t done yet that I want to do. But if the Lord calls me home at any time, I can honestly say I’ve had a really good life.”