Nonprofit Designs Cowboy Boots for Wounded Warriors

In a nondescript storefront, tucked away in a strip center in El Paso, you can hear the boot maker hammering away on the sole of a new boot.

A good pair of boots take time to make.

"From picking out the leather, to putting them in the box to ship to the customer, you're probably looking at 6 to 8 weeks," bootmaker Joe Silva said.

The story behind the boots he makes doesn't start in West Texas. The real story starts on a battlefield in Afghanistan with a Green Beret named John Wayne.

"My parents had a sense of humor," he said. "I was born on the Fourth of July."

John Wayne Walding is a proud Texan.

"It's an identity," he said.

He's also a very proud American, as his American flag socks show.

"They've got freedom written all over it," he joked.  

As Walding was sized for a new pair of boots, the man doing the measurements carefully mapped out every detail of Walding's prosthetic right leg.

"The real foot is more difficult to fit, than the one the government gave him," Silva said.

Walding lost his right leg in Afghanistan on April 6, 2008.

"It was a kill, capture mission," he explained. "It was a 6 1/2 hour fire fight where about 15 Americans went up against 250 Taliban fighters. We had to come down from our location to where they were getting shot and initiate operation human shield. We were to catch the bullets while the medic did his job of keeping them alive."

Four Americans were critically injured. Walding was shot in the leg.

"I fell forward and then when I rolled over to asses the damage, the residual part of my leg was just hanging at a 45 degree angle, only by an inch of flesh," he said.

Every American made it out alive.

"The Medal of Honor was awarded, nine Silver Stars were awarded, eight Purple Hearts, and we won," Walding said.

That battle didn't just cost Walding his leg, it also took part of his identity.

"It's a Texas thing," he said. "That's just who we are, we wear cowboy boots."

Walding's prosthetic leg makes wearing boots, nearly impossible.

"You can't just go to Cavender's and buy a pair of Justins and slip on a boot," he said.

It's an issue that Johnnie Yellock said he experienced as well.

"My legs are so custom, they require a custom boot to be able to use," Yellock said.  

A roadside bomb left Yellock unable to walk.

"I've had 31 surgeries to date to be able to keep my legs and both of my ankles are fused, so my feet will never move again, they're fused at a 90 degree," he said.

That not-so-distant memory is now Yellock's motivation to help others. He's the executive director of Boots For Warriors, a nonprofit that's teamed up with Olsen-Stelzer Boots, to make free custom boots with zippers for wounded warriors with prosthetics.

Each veteran who receives a pair hand picks every detail.

"For me that's the most important thing," Yellock said. "There's a lot of personality in a boot."

On his boot straps, Yellock put the initials of service members who died in combat.

"There's connection for life," he said.

For Walding, the day has finally come -- his new custom boots have finally arrived. They're a custom pair of green smooth ostrich boots.

"This gives me some of my identity back," he said. "And it means the world to me."

If you'd like to donate to ensure more wounded veterans get boots, you can donate at www.BootsForWarriors.org.

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