In July 2008, on his way back to Wichita, U.S. Marine Sgt. Derek Walden carried something special with him.
It was taken from him, and now, nearly four years later, he has it back.
It was a wooden boat paddle, but no ordinary paddle. It was a Marine reconnaissance paddle, which to a recon Marine is a gift of honor, carefully decorated and bestowed by other men who are part of a close-knit, specially trained military unit that in the harshest conditions hides, watches and strikes.
You ask permission to touch someone’s recon paddle. You wash your hands first. There is an etiquette and a respect because the paddle stands for so much. It stands for past sacrifice. It stands for the men who are still fighting, with no one but each other.
Not every Marine gets a paddle; it’s up to his teammates. Walden’s recon brothers painstakingly decorated his paddle, in the tradition, with parachute cord wrapped in colors symbolizing Marine duty in the various wars. They festooned his paddle with badges and ribbons reflecting his special diving and parachuting expertise and his combat experience during 2006 and 2007 in and around Fallujah, one of the most dangerous places during the Iraq War.
He and other recon Marines had gone on missions in the desert, where they trekked with heavy packs and sniper’s weapons and buried themselves in the sand to become invisible. They spied on insurgents and called in air strikes. They went on “knock and talks” in urban areas. In one such mission, Walden and his platoon, Alcatraz Three, lost their friend and fellow Marine, Gary Johnston.
The paddle represented all those memories to Walden. As he flew on a commercial flight from Okinawa to Seattle in July 2008 on his way back to his wife and young daughter in Wichita, he held the paddle, protected with bubble wrap, between his legs.
But in Seattle, where he was changing planes for the leg to San Diego, a Transportation Security Administration worker told him he couldn’t board with the paddle. Not authorized, she said.
He was wearing civilian clothes but said he was a Marine coming back from overseas. He tried to explain that the paddle was special. He couldn’t understand why he was able to take it with him on the longer international flight but not on the short domestic flight. He asked if he could speak to the captain and crew to see if they would object to him carrying it with him.
She told him she understood somewhat but she was not letting him proceed with it.
She had a grip on the paddle, and she called out to others, “He’s not listening. Where’s security?”
At that point, Walden reluctantly relinquished the paddle. He didn’t want to cause an incident.
The TSA worker assured him she would hand-deliver the paddle, that it would be placed with checked items and would get to him.
But at the San Diego airport, the paddle never showed up. He waited, made calls and spent hours trying to find the irreplaceable paddle.
For nearly four years, the paddle had disappeared. For a while, he thought about it frequently but eventually lost hope.
Since then, Walden has become a real estate businessman. His family has grown. His wife, Tatum, gave birth to a son. The former Marine is now a member of the Kansas National Guard.
Then, on March 13, he got a message from Camp Pendleton, the Marine base in California. The message said it had taken a month to find him, that the base had an item with his name.
“I immediately knew,” he said. “So ecstatic.”
Camp Pendleton sent the paddle by overnight delivery. It arrived undamaged, still in the same bubble wrap from Okinawa.
A regional TSA spokeswoman said in an e-mail statement Friday: “TSA has the utmost regard for the men and women in uniform who serve our country. Our goal is to screen them and their belongings with respect and courtesy. Because this individual traveled almost four years ago, it is not possible to ascertain the details of his checkpoint experience. However, if an item is prohibited, TSA gives passengers options, including referring them to the airline. Airline personnel can check the item, which after screening, is loaded onto the aircraft. We regret that this passenger had a negative experience, and are pleased to learn” that the item has been returned to him.
Walden isn’t sure how the paddle got to Camp Pendleton. He can only guess that it ended up in some warehouse for lost items. It appeared that someone had pulled back the bubble wrap enough to see that it belonged to a Marine and that it had his name.
For Walden, the paddle is a powerful reminder of “the community of the recon brothers.”