Thursday, September 22, 2011

CLIP: Safely Home

Safely Home: Injured soldier gets friendly help in Davie

MOCKSVILLE - During their usual four-vehicle convoys in Iraq, Cpl. Jeff Walton of Mocksville rode in the first Humvee, aiming his gun straight ahead, 12 o'clock. His friend, Cpl. Doug Roye of Clemmons, normally trailed him in a second Humvee.
On the night of Dec. 15, Walton and Roye both felt something was wrong right from the start of their personal-security detail to escort a captain to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Walton rode in the second vehicle that night as the convoy headed to Baghdad at a brisk 15 mph, and Roye was in a third Humvee.

"We looked at each other and said, 'This is a bad thing,' " Walton said. "It seemed like something wasn't right."

They were right.

"We had just got to Baghdad.... Suddenly, it rocked us. Boom! I'd heard explosions before. They're always loud, but it's different when it rolls up on you,'' Walton said.

"My arm was on fire, but it was a cold fire. It was so cold. The first thing I thought was, 'This is it. It's my ticket.' "

An improvised explosive device, or IED, had been set off by a terrorist. It exploded between the vehicles just off the road. Roye absorbed the concussive part of the blast, and Walton was pelted with ball bearings and glass from broken Pepsi bottles.

The two other people in the Humvee were Staff Sgt. Scott Baker of Greenville, the squad leader, and the driver, Jessica Pessick, a private first class from East Bend. They went to Walton's aid, where they were joined by Sgt. Josh Hartsoe of Maiden.

"I said to Doug, 'I'm hurt, hurt real bad,' " Walton said.

The convoy didn't have a medic, Walton said, but his buddies, all part of the National Guard's 1132nd Military Police Company out of Rocky Mount, were there for him. They tied up the arm, stopped the bleeding and held Walton's hand to make sure he stayed awake. Then he was quickly returned to base.

Could have been worse
Walton can laugh about one part of the story now; as he was being treated by his friends, his MP3 wound up playing Guns N' Roses' version of the song "Knocking on Heaven's Door."

As Walton learned, his injury could have been worse. The ball bearings had split his right triceps and severed the radial nerve, but nothing nicked the bone. Walton underwent surgery in Baghdad.

"There was a huge incision in my right arm, a foot or more," he said. "They took out dead tissue, and there was a hole the size of a tennis ball."

While he was under anesthesia, someone asked if they could take his picture, and he said it was OK. The photos, taken by an Associated Press photographer, wound up on news sites, and his unit commander saw them. Walton sent a link to his wife, who had learned of the explosion from his commanders.

Walton, 35, made a stopover in Landstuhl, Germany, on the way to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in late December. He underwent eight more hours of surgery to clean up his arm, and was reunited with his wife, Beverly, and their children, Meghan, 11, Natalie, 7, and Jacob, 2.

He made stopovers in Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg before returning to Mocksville shortly after Christmas.

"You don't really think about it while it's going on," said Beverly Walton, who took a month off from her job as a special-education teacher at Carter Vocational High School after her husband was injured. "The anticipation is worse than thinking about what happened.''

Walton had faced danger before. He was a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., and in Gastonia before he became a Marine in the '90s and then joined the National Guard. He went to Iraq in 2004. Upon his return in 2006, he enrolled in the Troops to Teachers program, and became a carpentry teacher at Davie County High School in 2006. Walton, who is 6 feet, 6 inches and weighs 270 pounds, also helped coach the War Eagles' girls' basketball team. 

It's been a whirlwind homecoming for Walton, with trips to rehabilitation and to watch the War Eagles play Reynolds in basketball.

Once, he was wearing a cap that said I'm a Purple Heart Veteran when he was buying shoes in Statesville. Someone asked what happened to his arm, and he said jauntily, "I got blown up in Iraq."

A pregnant woman was listening, and she just happened to be a former student at Davie County High School. When Walton was ready to pay, he learned that the woman had paid. He tried to catch her and repay her, but she got away.

He still jokes that he couldn't catch a pregnant woman.

Community help
The family has received gifts from various sources. When the brakes and rotors went out on the family's car, Mocksville Tire paid for the repairs.

Calvary Baptist Church of Winston-Salem was a support group for his entire platoon, and Reynolds American adopted the family for Christmas, buying gifts for the children and sending items to him in Iraq.

Walton has three more years of National Guard service. He'll return to duty at Fort Bragg today, and hopes to get transferred to duty in the Triad that would allow him to return to teaching this fall.

That would please Beverly Walton.

"You fear him not coming home,'' she said. "I saw pictures, and he was alive and had his arm. What's to complain about? Other families would like to be in the situation we're at, with him home and safe.''

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