HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – After more than 50 years of working with explosive ordnance as a soldier and civilian, Wilson Walters isn’t about to slip into a lazy retirement.
Walters, a safety and occupational specialist and technical manager for recovered chemical warfare materials for the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville, is saying goodbye this month to the program he was instrumental in creating when he began his civilian career in 1992.
A U.S. Army retiree, Walters came to Huntsville Center’s Ordnance and Explosives Directorate just months prior to the Center’s initial work in disposing recovered chemical warfare materiel. It’s this early work—initiated by a high-profile project in an upscale Washington, D.C. neighborhood—that he’s most proud of, said Walters.
Before D.C.’s Spring Valley neighborhood became home to posh homes with expansive yards, valued at approximately $5 million each according to a recent NPR report, it was a remote testing and disposal site for chemical weapons, including mustard gas, during WWI. It wasn’t until years after the homes were built that residents began finding remnants of these deadly weapons, and the Corps of Engineers was called in to start the clean-up process.
This was the first clean-up of its kind, said Walters, but it would be the first of many.
“Our team of only four people was starting from scratch, building new regulations and guidance specifically for chemicals,” said Walters. “This was a significant moment in my career because I was able to work with so many important people—ambassadors, senators, the Deputy Assistant of the Army, and so on—and it was significant for the nation because of its far-reaching effects.”
Prior to the Spring Valley clean-up, the removal of chemical weapons was against Department of Defense regulations for Explosive Ordnance Disposal units, both civilian and military, he said.
“Because of Spring Valley, other sites started saying, ‘Hey, we have the same problem,’ and the DoD started paying attention,” said Walters. “Spring Valley was the institutional beginning of what got us the funding and authorization to handles these issues at sites around the world.”
Since his work on the Spring Valley project, which wrapped in 2021, Walters’s team at Huntsville Center has nearly quadrupled in size and is now working three full-time projects, including the munitions site removal on Redstone Arsenal. Huntsville Center is now the “go-to guys for chemicals” for all Corps of Engineers districts, said Walters.
“We work with chemicals every day, so we know how things can change quickly, and we know what has to be done to keep everyone safe,” he said. “Plus, some of this stuff has been in ground since WWI, and it’s leaking, so we’re always investigating new ways to be as environmentally safe as possible.”
Walters said he’s “extremely proud” to be able to say that not a single Center employee or contractor has had a chemical injury since the beginning of the program.
The dangerous nature of the job was not new to Walters when he accepted his first civilian job at Huntsville Center. He had previously served 28 years as an EOD soldier in the U.S. Army, from which he retired as sergeant major of the EOD division at Redstone Arsenal in May 1991.
Despite seeming to be perfectly cut out for a career in EOD, he actually stumbled upon it because he happened to have taken a typing class in high school, he said.
“I was in a replacement unit at Ft. Stewart, Ga., and a sergeant came in asking who could type,” said Walters. “I raised my hand and, before you knew it, I was working as a clerk for EOD.”
He eventually decided to take advantage of the hazardous pay incentive to become an EOD technician, almost doubling his salary at the time. However, the pay was not what caused him to stick with a profession that many abandon after the first few years, he said.
“I always liked what I did because it was something useful,” he said. “The Army is like a firefighter in peacetime. You don’t need it until there’s a war. But EOD is always in demand, even in peacetime--taking care of ranges or stuff they’d find on post, supporting presidential campaigns, working with Secret Service to protect VIPs, stuff like that.”
His career provided him numerous opportunities for travel and celebrity assignments including accompanying the Nixon family on vacation in Key Biscayne, Fla., and protecting presidential candidates Nelson Rockefeller and George Wallace during their campaigns.
After such an exciting career, Walters is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, children, and grandchildren, but he has no intention of taking it easy.
“I’m 77-years-old, so I’m not going to sit around and do nothing,” he said. “I like a challenge and would still be up for the challenge of EOD, but it’s time for me to move out of the way for the new guys and gals to take over and run this thing for the next 20 years. I’ve helped train them, so I know they’re ready.”
The Ordnance and Explosives Directorate is hosting a retirement celebration for Walters on Thursday, March 31.
For more information about the Ordnance and Explosives Directorate at Huntsville Center, visit https://www.hnc.usace.army.mil/Missions/Ordnance-and-Explosives-Directorate/.