One step at a time, John Waldenville is trying to put his life back together.
Saturday, the former Oklahoma County sheriff's major, who was shot in the head during a 2011 robbery at Cattlemen's Steakhouse in Oklahoma City, will mark another milestone in his recovery with a walk across the stage at the 2012 Jim Thorpe Courage Awards.
The 61-year-old attributed his success over the past year to his wife, Marjorie, and to his faith in God.
“There's a reason for me to be here,” he said. “Really, if anything I just hope someday that I can be an advocate for others. You just don't do it all by yourself.”
May 21, 2011, just after midnight, Waldenville was ambushed while carrying the nightly deposit from the restaurant where he worked as a security guard to the bank around the corner. The 25-year law enforcement veteran didn't have time to react or plead his case before the gun went off. The bullet went in just above his right eye, severing his optic nerve, and through his ear before shattering his jaw and settling in his jowls.
The bleeding and swelling caused so much trauma to his brain he has spent the past year just learning how to function again.
“He's come so far. When he came here he wouldn't know where to go for weeks; he would be lost,” said Marjorie Waldenville, watching as her husband made his way through a cognitive rehab session at the outpatient program at Integris Baptist Medical Center. “But there's so much that's unknown still. He sees so many doctors it's kind of a matter of wait and see.”
Her husband of 15 years — a former high school football player and member of the Oklahoma County SWAT team — spent five weeks at OU Medical Center and another month undergoing inpatient treatment at Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Hospital.
From basic physical therapy — learning to walk with a walker — to aquatic and now occupational therapy, he gets by now with only minor restrictions.
In his right eye socket is a prosthetic, and he walks with a cane, but John Waldenville thinks and talks just like he used to. He no longer can attend his beloved OU football games, but he's found solace in simple activities like feeding the ducks at the hospital pond.
In May, he walked in and completed the Jim Thorpe Courage Run.
“It's a combination of things — of my wife, my religious belief and the close friends I have,” he said. “Law enforcement is a brotherhood, and I've had many reach out, and also the public that's so supportive. And then the rest is on your shoulders. You gotta come in with the mindset that you're going to take that next step and do what you need to do.”
Two men, one a former dishwasher at the restaurant, face felony charges of robbery and shooting with intent to kill in the attack. Trial is set for December.
Waldenville said he wouldn't say he's angry with the men who ambushed him, but he's upset that they changed his life. The former officer said he's found a new priority in learning to love.
His wife said the two have never been closer.
“We have become absolute best friends,” she said. “He's much more compassionate toward other people. He was before, but not to this extent. And we always had pretty strong faith but this has really, really changed his.”
Around their wrists, John and Marjorie Waldenville wear black rubber bracelets bearing one word — courage. They picked them up at a brain injury support group, which they attend once a month.
Waldenville said courage is about the persistence to overcome despite anything.
“It means to face a challenge, to take that next step forward in the best way you can,” he said. “Courage is also — gosh — not giving up. It's just not giving up.”