This was originally published in the December 2021 “Wyoming Lawyer”
Ever since Bridger Walker, then 6 years old, stepped in front of his younger sister to protect her from an attacking dog, he’s received support from people around the world who wanted to commend him for his bravery.
But who would have guessed that their love and admiration would be expressed with thousands and thousands of rocks?
Young Bridger, whose father Robert (R.J.) Walker and grandfather John Walker are Cheyenne attorneys, was severely injured on July 9, 2020, when the dog attacked him. The wounds to his face required 90 stitches to close.
Bridger later said he protected his sister because “If someone had to die, I thought it should be me.”
“That quote pushed the story over the top,” R. J. Walker said.
His story — and the photo taken of him with his 4-year-old sister Brielle, his face swollen and scarred — went viral. From that point on, the outpouring of love from complete strangers overwhelmed the family.
Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a New York dermatologist, contacted the Walkers soon after the incident and offered to treat Bridger’s face with laser technology — pro gratis.
Still, people wanted to contribute toward the boy’s medical treatment, but the family made it clear it did not want financial assistance. The Walkers asked the public to give instead to organizations that provide help for those whose needs are greater: Mission 22, Operation Underground Railroad and The Wounded Warrior Project.
Mail Trucks Full Of Rocks
But people seemed to want to do things for Bridger, Robert said. Recognizing that, the family let it be known that Bridger is a rockhound and suggested that people take pictures of their favorite rocks to either post on Facebook or send to Bridger.
“I figured it would let them do something to make them feel good,” Robert said. “We got a small P.O. box at the post office and almost immediately had three or four rolling bins full of boxes. They were HEAVY. People were sending rocks — tens of thousands of rocks.”
For weeks, mail trucks full of rocks pulled up daily in front of the Walker home.
“One person said, ‘I heard Bridger likes rocks,’” said Robert“So the guy sent him driveway rocks in a shoebox. He probably spent $80 sending them to him.”
The letters accompanying the rocks were personal and touching, he added — like the man who wrote that his wife, who had recently passed away, kept some rocks by her bedside. The man explained that he couldn’t think of a better way to honor her than by passing them on Bridger.
“Some (letters) would just break your heart,” Robert said. “For a month, we were just opening those envelopes and crying.”
Some people sent other items that carried sentimental value — like an honorary green beret someone sent him in recognition of his bravery. Another man mailed Bridger his Purple Heart.
He wrote: “I earned this saving my friend. You did the same thing. I think you deserve this.”
Bridger has also received a lot of attention from celebrities. In addition to baseball/football player Bo Jackson, actors Chris Evans, Tom Holland, Zachary Levi, Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and others reached out to Bridger to acknowledge his act of heroism.
Musician Bret Michaels, the front man for the group Poison, sent the boy an autographed guitar.
“Bridger looked at it and started crying. ‘I don’t know how to play,’ he said,” said R.J., explaining that Bridger believed Michaels had sent him his only guitar and he felt bad taking it from someone else who could play it.
The World Boxing Council made Bridger an honorary champion “for his courageous actions that represent the absolute best values of humanity” and sent him a championship belt.
“That was amazing,” Robert said. “We have the belt hanging in the basement.”
Later, the council notified Bridger’s father that it was adding a new weight class to heavyweight boxing and requested permission to name it after his son: the Bridgerweight. The new weight division is for boxers weighing between 200 and 224 pounds. It is a middle division between the cruiserweight and heavyweight divisions.
The most extravagant expression of appreciation for Bridger’s courage was extended by Yas Island, an entertainment destination in Abu Dhabi, which invited Bridger, his parents Robert and Teila, his siblings and many of his extended family — 24 family members in all — to an all-expense paid vacation in Abu Dhabi.
Last summer, the family visited the Yas Island Water Park, the Qasr Al Watan (presidential) Palace, the Warner Brothers World, and Ferrari World. Both amusement parks were bedecked with large signs that read “Welcome Bridger and his family” and their employees and patrons gave Bridger special recognition.
Bridger’s grandfather, John Walker, told the Casper Star-Tribune upon the family’s return to the states that he realized his grandson was honored in the United Arab Emirates because of the importance of family to its people.
“The part of Bridger’s story that touches the very heart and soul of so many of those residing within the UAE is his love for and devotion to family,” he said.
Though the Abu Dhabi trip was unforgettable, Bridger’s father maintains it is only one small part of Bridger’s story.
“It’s amazing — the wonderful, miraculous support Bridger has received from around the world,” Robert said. “I don’t know what his emotional recovery would have been without it. It took his mind off his recovery. His wound would drip, but instead of worrying about the drops of blood all over his shirt, he always had the next package to look forward to.”
“Not Inflated His Head”
Perhaps just as amazing is the way Bridger has handled the incident itself and the international attention he garnered as a result of his actions. According to R.J., “the bad has not dragged him down and the good has not inflated his head.”
“We were out rockhounding and I asked him, ‘How do you feel, getting all this attention? Does it change who you are? ’ and he said, ‘No, I’m just me.’ That’s been his attitude.”
“The whole situation has made him more sympathetic to others and what they’re feeling. He knows what it’s like to be in pain,” Robert added. “There was a kid in Laramie County who got bitten (by a dog), and Bridger worked to put together a care package for him.”
Bridger’s face is healing well, thanks to the laser treatments he’s received, and the scars are fading, his dad said. He has full sensation and muscle control in his face.
“It’s amazing there’s been no reconstructive surgery,” said Robert
Bridger has plenty to smile about as the University of Wyoming Geological Museum opened an exhibit of some of his rocks on Nov. 12. In introducing his son’s exhibit that night at the opening reception, Robert said the collection is less about Bridger’s heroism than it is about the kindness and support people have shown a little boy.
“They’re only going to be able to display 1/1,000 of his collection,” Robert said. “It seems like just a portion of the goodness people sent.”
The exhibit will run through June, 2022.