It was the second of three awards given by the National Cemetery Administration in her three years directing the cemetery. Walker oversaw a massive expansion project and established an outreach program more inclusive of the community.
Mountain Home National Cemetery has been in the news over and over under Walker’s tenure.
Last week’s award was given during a ceremony to announce a new project at the cemetery — a corresponding metal arch on the corner of the cemetery across from the Washington County/Johnson City Veterans Memorial that will say “Where Heroes Rest.” The arch at the memorial says “Freedom Is Not Free.”
But less than 24 hours after that announcement and award, life came at Walker like a brick wall. She thought she was having a heart attack and called 911 around 4 a.m. on July 31.
It wasn’t a heart attack.
Instead, what came out of a doctor’s mouth after hours of tests was that she had a very aggressive form of cancer that had already metastasized in three places.
Walker, 61, had survived lymphoma 15 years ago through the traditional methods of treating cancer, and she said she has no desire to go through that fight again because of the side effects of chemo.
When the doctor said it was terminal, Walker made a big decision. Instead of spending her last days — the doctor gave her three months because of how aggressive the cancer is — suffering through chemo or radiation, Walker decided to plan a trip and mark a few things off her bucket list.
Yes, she is still coming to terms with her diagnosis, and she’s traveling the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with a fatal diagnosis. But her intent is clear — she’ll do anything within her power to not leave this world with things unsaid or undone.
Pretty quickly after the diagnosis, Walker resigned her position and left the helm to a recently hired assistant director. She set about calling close friends with the news, then called a staff meeting last Friday to tell her employees what was going on. Needless to say, everyone was shocked.
Walker, too, feels the shock, but has come to terms with the diagnosis.
“I’m pretty resolved,” to the diagnosis, Walker said on Tuesday. “It is what it is. I could sit in bed and be bitter and wait to die. I’m not sitting and waiting on it. I want to go as long as I can, as far as I can.”
And if she’s no longer able to go, Walker said, she’ll return to her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, for whatever time she has left. Walker said she’s been amazed at the outpouring of support from the Johnson City community as well as areas where she’s previously lived.
“So many people have expressed love,” she said. “I want to say ‘thank you’ to the community. This community has opened their arms and hearts to me. The veterans have embraced me, the organizations have embraced me as well as the cemetery. I’ve made some of the closest friends I’ve had in my life. It’s been fabulous, probably the best three years of my life.”
Walker said the past 15 years were a “gift” she’d had and she’s made the most of it. During her first round with cancer, Walker said she did a lot of personal growth and gained a different perspective on life.
“Some people would call it borrowed time,” she said. “I’ve had a very blessed life ... I learned to guide my life with an open heart, to always be kind and to always be honest.”
Sure, she’s angry, but not about what most might think. She’s angry “I had to leave a job I love.”
Walker said she appreciates the National Cemetery Administration for “letting me do it my way, for giving me a great opportunity. I’ve helped a lot of people and a lot of veterans. That’s the reward.”
One thing Walker said she tells her grandchildren is “learn something new every day. You have to look for that message every day.”
Walker takes that message to heart and said she’s still learning and growing as a person — and she’ll continue following that path until her journey ends.