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'It was a struggle.' Mom's death, failed courses didn't stop West Point grad

By MARK RICE | Columbus Ledger-Enquirer | Published: July 15, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Walker Seldon took an unusual and arduous route to becoming a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He failed courses and nearly flunked out of West Point.

He broke his foot, twice, and got a severe concussion.

His mom died, then his grandfather.

But he persevered, and Seldon graduated earlier this year from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Now the 25-year-old hopes his triumphant story inspires others.

“I want to spread positivity and touch the next generation,” he said, “because that’s the ultimate job of our generation, to be better than the last generation.”

 

‘I was shocked’

Seldon’s father, grandfathers and uncles all served in the Army, and his two brothers now serve. But he’s the first commissioned officer in his family.

His path there started in high school, when he was a Ledger-Enquirer 2011 Dandy Dozen selection as a linebacker and running back at Northside High in Columbus, Ga.

“The thing I will always remember about Walker was his fun-loving personality,” said Northside athletics director Morgan Ingram, who was the football team’s offensive coordinator then. “… He knows when it’s time to get serious but has fun in between. He was also a very good football player.”

But at 5-foot-7 and 190 pounds, he didn’t get any college scholarship offers. So he followed the family tradition and joined the Army.

“I wanted to be independent, be able to take care of myself and allow my parents to have a peace of mind knowing that I will be taken care of as an adult,” he said.

While stationed at Fort Drum with the 10th Mountain Division in August 2013, Seldon’s platoon leader saw online video clips of his high school football highlights and asked why he didn’t end up playing in college. Seldon explained his decision and wowed the platoon leader with his passion for serving in the Army. So the next day, the platoon leader informed Seldon that active-duty soldiers could apply to West Point to become an officer.

Although he graduated high school with a 3.1 grade-point average, Seldon figured he didn’t have the standardized test scores to get into West Point. As an active-duty soldier, he could demonstrate character and leadership in his application, and his commander would give him a glowing recommendation.

Seldon thought of another reason that applying to West Point was a good idea.

“That was like the only way I could get back into actually playing football,” he said.

While he waited to hear if he was accepted, his unit was deployed in January 2014 to Afghanistan, where he worked in the communications headquarters.

Three months later, an email informed him he was accepted into the USMA prep school, which gets cadet candidates ready for the academy. West Point’s acceptance rate is reported as 10 percent.

“I was shocked,” he said. “… I guess they’d seen something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”

 

‘I love you’

Seldon graduated from the prep school in May 2015 with lots of family in attendance. But his mother, Nicole Ash, a manager at Aflac, missed it because she was hospitalized with complications from lupus, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue and organs.

After the ceremony, Seldon went to the hospital. She was asleep, but as he was leaving, she awoke.

She apologized for missing his graduation. He told her to not worry about it. They hugged and told each other, “I love you.”

The next day, she died.

“She was one of my biggest supporters,” Seldon said. “… Losing her, it’s like a big hit.”

 

‘An emotional challenge’

Three years out of high school, it was tough for Seldon to get back into academic mode. Dealing with the deaths of his mother, and then his maternal grandfather the next semester, made his transition even more difficult.

“It was a struggle,” he said. “… It was an emotional challenge for me.”

His grade-point average at the end of freshman year was 1.5. That cost him a walk-on spot on the football team, and he was in danger of flunking out.

As a law and legal studies major, he failed calculus his sophomore year but passed it that summer.

“Math is hard for me, period,” he said. “To be honest, I wasn’t focused in that class the first time around. The second time I took it, that was the only class I was taking at the time, so I was putting literally all my time into passing it.”

Thanks to support from his family, friends, instructors, classmates and the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point, he learned how to succeed.

Seldon boosted his study habits. Instead of doing school work for only an hour in his room at night and allowing himself to be distracted by watching videos, he doubled the amount of time and started studying in the library.

His grades amounted to nearly a 3.0 in the fall semester of his senior year. He needed a four-year average GPA of at least 2.0 to graduate — and he finished with a 2.1.

“I had to really work twice as hard as the next person would have to bring my grades back up and to graduate,” he said.

West Point matches each cadet with a sponsor that acts as the cadet’s adopted family.

“Having the cadet sponsors there with me really helped me a lot, as far as getting out and getting some breathing room, getting some fresh air, because every day at West Point, it’s like you don’t stop,” he said. “You’re always doing something.”

Lt. Col. David Harvie, his wife and their two children were Seldon’s sponsors.

“Walker became part of our family,” said Harvie, an assistant professor and operations officer in the USMA Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “… My (10-year-old) son, Stephen, is a special-needs child, and Walker was always so patient and considerate towards him.

“Of the dozen or so cadets that we sponsored, Walker was by far Stephen’s favorite.”

 

‘If you want to quit, what’s your plan?’

At one point freshman year, Seldon nearly gave up and turned in his paperwork to quit, but his father, wife and others convinced him to stay.

“A lot of people came into my corner,” he said.

Seldon’s father, Marcus, said he told his son, “This is bigger than you. Use all that as motivation for you to get through. Your mother wants the best for you. Your grandfather wants the best for you.”

Seldon’s wife, Amber, said he asked her husband, “OK, if you want to quit, what’s your plan? He didn’t really have an answer for that, so I was like, ‘Walker, I think you really should think about it.’ … We prayed about it.”

Their advice, Seldon said, “gave me a different perspective. That really helped me stay.”

So did prayer.

“When I got into the military, I started to develop more of a strong, personal relationship with God,” he said. “… It went from asking God to watch over me, whatever I’m going through get me through it, show me the way, give me an answer. It turned into more of a conversation. I felt like those conversations helped me get all that stuff built up inside of me, just get it out.”

Harvie noted, “His family and his faith gave him strength to carry on.”

 

‘Didn’t matter if my foot fractured again’

Also as a sophomore, Seldon suffered a concussion during his first and only match with the boxing team. His symptoms lasted for three months. That delayed his progress toward graduation as it hindered physical training.

He thinks it also caused him to twice fail the Indoor Obstacle Course Test. When he finally passed, he said, “It takes a lot out of you, so it was a lot of relief. … I was in the gym practicing the IOCT often. Each obstacle I would practice separately multiple times and then put it all together.”

Then, as a senior, he twice broke his left foot during PT. He didn’t seek medical attention the first time, thinking it might prevent him from graduating. But after Christmas break, he broke it again and realized he couldn’t ignore it.

This time, therapy enabled his foot to heal — and he passed the final physical test required to graduate. As a 25-year-old, he needed to finish the 2-mile run in at least 16:36. He ran about 1½ minutes faster.

“It didn’t matter if my foot fractured again,” he said. “I was going to make that time.”

 

‘She’s in my spirit’

At the academy’s graduation ceremony, Seldon soaked in the moment.

“All the hard work, long days and nights and dedication all paid off,” he said.

He missed his mother especially then.

“But I know she was watching from up above,” he said. “She’s in my spirit. Rather than being here physically, she has been helping me. She’s been my motivation spiritually. When I’m having a hard time or struggling with something, I think about her and the things she taught me and my dad taught me.”

Marcus Seldon, a former Columbus policeman, Muscogee County sheriff’s deputy and teacher, said, “His mother and I raised them to believe if they want to do something, they can do it, whatever it is. So I’m not shocked that he graduated from West Point. … I’m very proud of him and just humbled. What I want him to do is to inspire others, especially people who wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to do what he has done.”

Marcus Seldon served for four years in the Army before a training accident at Fort Benning left him partially disabled and now wearing braces on both legs.

“He’s always been there for us,” Walker Seldon said of his father. “He’s always worked twice as hard as he needed to work to make sure we had everything we needed and sometimes things we wanted. … Just seeing the kind of man my dad was motivated me to do the things I’m doing now.”

Amber Seldon, a 2012 graduate from Hardaway High School and now a school counseling major on track to graduate from Troy University in December, said about her husband, “It’s remarkable the things that he went through and his patience. … He never got frustrated with me asking a million questions. I’m very proud of him.”

She credits her husband’s persistence, determination and motivation.

“His faith, as well,” she said. “I think you have to have faith to go through things that he went through and to come out on top. A lot of people who went to West Point didn’t graduate.”

USMA reports its graduation rate as 82 percent in four years and 86 percent in six years.

 

‘Hard for me to reach out for help’

Although he ranked in the bottom 25 percent of his class, Seldon emphasized that each cadet graduates to the same rank — second lieutenant.

“Even the last cadet, whoever graduated last, can be just as successful as the person who graduated No. 1,” he said.

Seldon certainly impressed Harvie.

“Even though he had every reason to quit and give up,” Harvie said, “Walker always persevered in the midst of adversity.”

Harvie considers Seldon “an outstanding role model” for his children “because of his character, positive attitude and never-quit determination.”

Ingram said Seldon “has always been a hard worker, on and off the playing field. Some things didn’t come naturally nor easily for him. He would continue to work until he accomplished his goals. … This is the type of man that should make Columbus, Georgia, proud.”

Seldon has learned it’s important to not only have a support network, but also to use it by not letting pride get in the way.

“Throughout my life, it’s been kind of hard for me to reach out for help, because I feel vulnerable,” he said. “I learned that reaching out for help is not like a showing of vulnerability. Even the strongest person needs help. Even the most successful people had people help them get to where they are today. And I’ll be the first to tell you that I didn’t get here by myself.”

 

‘If you start something, finish it’

Seldon is scheduled to leave Columbus later this month to be stationed at Fort Gordon outside Augusta for the Signal Officer Basic Leaders Course. He and Amber are expecting their first child, a daughter, in November.

His career goal is to reach at least the rank of a field-grade officer (major, lieutenant colonel or colonel) and earn a master’s degree in business management. He also wants to become certified in Army communications and obtain a top-secret security clearance.

“I still see myself staying in (the Army) and retiring,” he said. “But now, I have other people to worry about, my wife and my future daughter, that will affect my decision. … I’m not going to put all my eggs in one basket right now. I’m just going to take things day to day and see what happens.”

Seldon expects his struggles to help him be a better leader.

“If something bad comes up, I’m not new to it,” he said. “It’s something I’ve done before. Just being able to go through stuff like that has definitely made me a stronger individual, not just physically but also mentally. Not only for myself, but I can impart that wisdom on people that I’m leading.”

As a sophomore, Seldon already found himself in that role as he counseled a freshman who wanted to quit. He helped him commit to remaining at the academy as he told him, “You don’t know who’s watching you. You don’t know who’s looking up to you.”

Here’s further guidance he would share:

“If you start something, finish it,” he said. “You had a reason for doing what you’re doing now. … Think about the things you’re letting go if you were to quit and all the people you’re letting down.”

“Once you join this profession, you’ve got to put the I’s away for Us. It’s a team, not just in the military but the family. It’s not always about you all the time.”

©2019 the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, Ga.)
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