It began with a backpack.
On April 6, 2008 a sniper shot off John Wayne Walding’s right leg during a firefight in Afghanistan. He was evacuated and eventually arrived at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. There Walding was handed a Goruck backpack full of shirts, socks, underwear, and other gear for an extended stay. Also: a check for $2,000. Also: a note. “It said, ‘Get your wife up here. Get everyone settled in. Let us know if you need anything else,'” Walding recalls.
The Green Beret Foundation greets its wounded soldiers with a backpack full of provisions, a check, and the financial and logistical resources to fetch families to their bedsides, as well as post-hospital assistance. “The Goruck bag was my first experience with a charity like that,” Walding says.
Years later another organization, Sentinels of Freedom, helped Walding–who was preparing to retire from the military–relocate from Fort Bragg, North Carolina to his home state of Texas. It also assisted with the business plan and acquiring machinery for his first startup, a firearm company called 5 Toes Custom that Walding named, mischievously, for his absent leg.
Recently Walding launched his third startup, Live to Give, a for-profit business supporting the kinds of charitable work that helped bring him back–mind, body, and spirit–from his devastating injury. The company, based in Dallas, sells bottled water and donates 50 percent of net profits to philanthropies that provide medical, financial, educational, and other assistance to veterans, first responders, and their families. The company’s mission is to give everyday Americans the ability to give back daily. But water is just the start. Walding and his co-founder, Zach Smith, intend to build out a line of convenience and grocery store staples like coffee, energy bars, and jerky. Their model for the venture is Newman’s Own. “Live to Give is not a product. It is a purpose,” Walding says.
After a bumpy start that included a save-the-day cameo by martial-arts star Chuck Norris, Live to Give began selling water late last year. For now the business is focusing on the Dallas area, with placement in 100 outlets including gyms, restaurants, and several dozen 7-Eleven franchises. The business is not yet profitable but has already made donations of around $5,000 to each of its first three nonprofit partners.
One of those partners is Chive Charities, an Austin-based group that supports veterans, first responders, and people with rare medical diagnoses. For veterans, the group has fulfilled individual requests for everything from service dogs to mobility vans to hyperbaric oxygen therapy. “All the funds from Live to Give will go directly to benefit a veteran recipient, so they will be having direct impact,” says Erika Carley, Chive’s senior director of operations. “They are truly philanthropic to their core.” CUT THIS LAST PHRASE?
From shooting to smithing
Despite his all-American name and July 4 birthday, Walding didn’t seem destined for military heroism. When he was a young boy, both his parents went to prison on drug charges. His grandparents raised him on their farm, in Groesbeck, Texas, which Walding remembers as “a 3,500-person town with a $10 million football field.”
When Walding was in high school his grandfather, a former oil-field roughneck ravaged by years of physical labor, became disabled. Bankrupt, the family moved to a small house in town, and Walding started working for an electrician. In 2001, the day after his 20th birthday, Walding visited an Army recruiter on the advice of a friend stationed at Fort Hood. “I said I need a real job,” Walding says. “I need a bigger purpose in my life.”
Four years later he joined the Special Forces. On that spring day in 2008, Walding was part of a small team of Green Berets and Afghan commandos involved in a brutal, almost-seven-hour firefight against an insurgent group in Afghanistan’s Shok Valley. Even after his lower leg was largely severed by a bullet, he fought on for four more hours. He earned a Silver Star Medal for his actions.
In 2012 Walding returned to Texas, and left the Army the following year. The first amputee to become a Special Forces sniper, he was lead instructor at the tactical training company founded by his friend Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who was the subject of the book and movie American Sniper. When the school closed after Kyle’s murder, Walding turned for next-steps advice to the network of Dallas-area professionals he’d developed.
Among those connections was the golf broadcaster David Feherty, who suggested that he try making guns for a living. Feherty paid for Walding to train as a gunsmith and–when Walding launched 5 Toes Custom–staked him for the purchase of parts. Sentinels of Freedom bought equipment for the startup. Kyle’s business partners gave him office space, and a friend supplied additional capital. “We were going to be a place where veterans could come and build handcrafted firearms,” says Walding, whose three-person workforce comprised two retired Marines and a former Navy sailor. “Being back in that team environment was therapeutic for them.”
The emotional payoff from his business was everything Walding had hoped for. The financial results proved less gratifying. Three years later a local businessman bought into the business and then bought out Walding. “He said, You need to be doing bigger and better things,” Walding says.
Focus on veterans’ causes
Shortly after Walding sold 5 Toes, Ken Beam, the founder of 25-year-old Pegasus Logistics, in Dallas, suggested they team up on a logistics startup that would qualify as a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business. Gallantry Global Logistics specializes in jobs that Walding compares to “the 10 percent of missions given to special operations in the Army.” So, for example, it has transported military[CORRECT?] drones-; shipments governed by strict Department of Defense criteria. Gallantry has 12 employees, hired for their industry expertise. But Walden says as it scales he wants the company to become the largest veteran employer in Texas.
Walding’s more immediate impact on veterans is through Live to Give. As he was launching Gallantry a friend introduced him to Smith, a sales rep for an oil company, who laid out his concept for a business that would donate 50 percent of profits to veterans’ causes. Their first product idea was energy shots. Seeking advice and support, Walding set up a meeting with his friend Larry Young, the CEO of Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.
“Larry heard our spiel and said, ‘All right guys, we are going to sell water,'” Walding says. They asked him why. “He said, ‘Everybody drinks it. It is cheap to make. And it is not going to kill anybody.'”
Help from a Texas Ranger
In the summer of 2018 Live to Give had just received its first samples of water when Dr. Pepper announced its acquisition by the beverage company Keurig. Until things settled, Live to Give was being back-burnered.
Anxious to start, the founders left Dr. Pepper and sought their own co-packer. They found CForce, owned by Chuck Norris and his wife Gena, who were bottling water from beneath their ranch in Navasota, Texas. “They were drilling a well and hit an aquifer,” Walding says. “And it’s Chuck, so he built a bottling plant.”
Last November, Walding and Smith held their first bottle of Live to Give water. But sales got off to a slow start. They had missed the autumn line reviews, when retailers select products to sell. And acting as their own distributors, they had no relationships with buyers.
On a radio interview, Walding explained the challenge. “I joked that it was easier to fight the Taliban than to get in a grocery store,” he says. Andy Shetty, owner of several local 7-Eleven franchises, heard the program and decided to give Live to Give a chance. Shetty talked up the brand to other franchise owners, who began stocking it as well. Walding is meeting soon with 7-Eleven corporate, he says.
During the pandemic, other Dallas area businesses, including gyms and sporting goods stores, signed on. Live to Give is also talking to larger retailers, including Albertsons and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which operates stores on military bases. Walding says they are close to signing with KeHE Distributors, which focuses on natural and specialty foods. That should make Live to Give a much larger regional player.
Meanwhile the business has been distributing water to Covid testing centers, fire stations, and back-to-school fundraisers. And the founders are launching their own foundation to simplify donations to other charities.
“I know firsthand what it’s like to come to a hospital and have a charity waiting on you to help,” Walding says. “I know the magnitude of what they are doing for others. That’s what I can’t wait for us to be.”