ROYAL OAK, Mich. - Dr. Edward Walton has spent his career caring for injured children. He's the chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Beaumont Children's Hospital, but he's also a Navy reservist.
Last July, Walton left his life in Michigan behind to serve his country in Afghanistan.
"I just feel like I've been lucky in all the blessings that I've had, and so it really was my opportunity to give back," Walton said as he prepared to ship out. "I'm very proud, I'm a little bit nervous. I know that it's still a dangerous place."
Walton went to Afghanistan hoping to have an impact on the people injured in the fight for freedom. He had no idea what an impact the experience would also have on him. Now a year later, Walton is back home and talking about his time in Afghanistan.
"I was stationed at the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan," said Walton.
His first impression upon arriving? The heat.
"When we got off the plane, it was 106 degrees," he said. "There were 30,000 people on the base, both civilians and military, so it was actually quite a busy place."
His unit cared for everyone on the base and many Afghans too.
"Our job was to do what was called 'damage control,'" said Walton. "We would receive the helicopters, and these folks would be pretty badly hurt, and it was our job to stabilize them and then the next morning, if you were Coalition troops, you would be put on an evacuation plane and be on your way to Germany. We took care of both Afghan soldiers and Afghan police, and they were out there every day in a lot of danger trying to make their country better. So a lot of the trauma that we saw were actually Afghans. A bomb doesn't discriminate, so unfortunately, we did see some kids."
He thought he was prepared for the injuries he would see, but said, "It's hard to describe the level of trauma that can be inflicted on somebody by an improvised explosive device."
The experience of serving in Afghanistan has had a lasting impact.
"I'm still trying to figure out how this experience has affected me. It's been profound," said Walton. "It's changed my world view. It's made me really appreciate at a much much greater level the folks that are out there protecting us. The word 'hero' is used a little too lightly these days, but one of the things that amazed me was that anytime an American troop would come in that was injured, if they could speak, would say two things -- they would say first of all, 'How's my buddy?' and second of all, 'When can I go back out?' I've never seen bravery like that. We really have the best out there protecting us."
Walton said he really didn't fear for his personal safety on the base.
"We lived in a rocket-protected structure and our hospital was rocket-protected," he said. "They would shoot rockets at us occasionally, but they're not very directional."
He was required to carry a weapon at all times -- a new experience for him.
"After a while, you get used to it. It's just something that it's there, but if it's the doctor that's trying to shoot at the bad guys, something really wrong is going on."
Walton said it was hard to be away from his family for so long, though he was grateful they were able to Skype on a regular basis. So what did he miss besides family and friends?
"Bananas," he said without hesitating. "The food wasn't bad, but the 'fresh fruit' wasn't always that fresh."
Walton's proudest moment personally came when he was recognized by his trauma team. It's a Navy tradition to be honored with the presentation of a paddle. Walton proudly displayed his.
"I was really honored when my team presented this to me. It's really a token of appreciation of their appreciation of my leadership," he said.
There's something else Walton plans to hold onto from his experience -- his boots.
"One of the first things we were given is our boots, so I had worn those boots for 10 months. I was going to throw them away because they were covered with dirt, they were pretty messy and pretty beat up," said Walton. "We went to a transition program in Germany on our way home, and one of the transition leaders asked us a question, 'So what's on your boots?' And we're all thinking dirt, grime, things like that. And one of my shipmates said, 'I have the blood of heroes on my boots.' So I just couldn't throw them away."
Walton's wife, dad, and uncle all served in the Navy, and Walton said if he was asked to go back to Afghanistan, he would do it again in a second. He wanted to share his experience to honor the service of the people he cared for, who willingly risk their lives every day.
"People need to recognize there are always, even when we're not officially at war, there are always people out there protecting them. There's always people in harm's way for them," said Walton. "There are folks who are willing to sacrifice everything for you and for this country."
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