Soldier who helped during Fort Hood shooting faces health challenges
York Daily Record, Pa.
Ryan Walton lies on the bed most of the day -- it's a single, hospital-issue, and barely big enough for his 6 foot, 5 inch frame. It's sandwiched between the couch and the stairs in his Red Lion townhouse.
Three years ago, he stood on the dais at Fort Hood, Texas, receiving the Meritorious Service Medal for running in when others ran out during the 2009 massacre, in which 13 people died and more than 30 were injured.
"It was very sad," he said. "But we all knew what we did and it was an honor to be there and receive it."
That day, he just happened to be driving through the fort when he came upon bloody victims who had fled as Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire.
Walton, now 27, carried bodies out of the building, slinging them over his broad shoulders. He started IVs in victims and advocated for the more seriously injured victims who were passed over by paramedics.
But before that day, he had already suffered injuries in Iraq and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I think, all in all, Nov. 5 is what ruined me," he said.
Walton, a 2004 Dover High School graduate, was honorably discharged, and in the past year, has been hospitalized numerous times for chronic back pain.
He now spends his days and nights in his bed, swallowing pills, sipping water and iced coffee, watching the same shows on TV.
His wife, Krystle, 26, has to stay by his side, taking care of all the cooking, cleaning, errands and laundry.
Walton's 3-year-old son, Ayden, wants to run and jump and play, not cuddle with dad on his bed.
"It feels like my body's deteriorating," he said. "I wouldn't take back anything I ever did, but I want to be with my family. I want to be a natural human being."
When Walton touched down in Mosul in late 2007, the stench of rotting flesh and excrement simmering in the hot sun crawled up his nostrils. It would take nearly two weeks to get used to it, he said.
He was assigned to a recovery team -- after a skirmish, would they roll in and care for the wounded, and haul back to their base the blasted-out metal carcasses of tanks, Humvees and trucks that had been destroyed.
"I was in places that the normal human being would go, 'No way,'" he said.
He first hurt himself in one of those places.
"There was a blast hole and it was filled with -- they call it moon dust," he said.
The dust, blown by the wind, obscured the hole and made it seem like he was stepping on solid ground. Wearing 70 pounds of equipment, Walton's right leg sank into the hole, while his left leg remained on solid ground.
Fellow soldiers thought he was shot.
When Walton returned to Fort Hood, doctors believed his knee was his main injury.
"It wasn't; it was always my back," he said.
They did get one thing right -- he had PTSD.
"It was cut and dried -- the nightmares, the anxiety, the anger -- a clear-cut image of PTSD," he said.
He was ordered to attend a two-week PTSD camp, where he was taught breathing techniques, meditation and yoga.
"I went through that, I
kind of felt different, a better person -- changed," he said. "And then Nov. 5 hit about a month or so after."
On the morning of the massacre, Krystle, then seven months pregnant, was looking forward to Walton taking her out for lunch before she worked an evening shift as a sales consultant for a cellphone company.
But about 1 p.m., Walton called and told her there had been a shooting at the fort and to stay home.
"I just hoped he was OK," she said. "I knew the kind of person he was, so I knew he was going towards it. He always goes to help people."
About 15 minutes later, there came a series of broadcasts over the fort's public-address system, meant to help soldiers and their families: Stay inside. Lock your doors. Prepare for an air attack. Turn off your air conditioning.
She also looked out her window and saw personnel carriers rolling through the streets, loaded with armed soldiers.
"I actually saw him on CNN carrying someone out, so I knew he was OK," she said.
Hours later, Walton returned home. He took his bloodstained uniform off, said he was going to take a shower.
"When he got out, he just sat there, in the dark, smoking," she said. "I told him I loved him and that when he wanted to talk, I was there."
Just more than a year after the massacre, Walton was honorably discharged from the Army.
"One commander said to me, 'You've done more in seven years than most guys do in 20,'" he said.
But he wondered, how am I going to support my family? How can I survive in the outside world, living and feeling the way I do?
He and Krystle decided to move to Florida, where Walton's aunt, Donna Jones, lived.
The pain in his back ramped up. He had hallucinations, night terrors.
The military changed his status to 100 percent disabled after further examination of his PTSD, and doctors worked to find the right medications to help him.
"I was their Guinea pig -- I didn't like that," he said. "'Try this pill, try that pill, let's mix it with this.' This isn't chemistry class ... The one pill they put me on, I lost my vision."
In October 2012, doctors removed a portion of his vertebral bone called the lamina. The surgery was supposed to help relieve pain in his legs and back, but doctors told him he would more than likely need further surgeries.
He holed himself up at home. In his mind, it was better than going to a store, and having all sorts of people around you, and not being able to see the exit.
"Nothing makes you better with this disease," he said of PTSD.
Since moving to York County about a year ago, Walton figures he's been hospitalized 8 to 10 times for back pain.
"More than that," Krystle said.
"I am able to walk, yes, but the biggest issue is injury while walking," he said.
"His legs can give out on him at any time," Krystle said.
After a several-day stay in late October at St. Joseph's Hospital in Towson, Md., Walton resolved to fight the urge to get himself to a hospital as soon as pain strikes.
"I'm going to work to beat this," he said.
This Nov. 5, it will have been four years since the massacre, and some things are far from settled with Walton. First on Walton's mind is the government's stance on the massacre.
"It should be (viewed as) an act of terrorism; it was not workplace violence," he said, referring to the post-massacre revelation that Hasan had espoused a pro-al Qaeda philosophy.
"He should've been thrown out of the Army before he had a chance to do this," Walton said.
In August, a jury found Hasan guilty and sentenced him to death.
Walton doesn't want to ever forget what happened Nov. 5, 2009. To make sure, he has a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm of the Meritorious Service Medal he received. Above it is the date and the inscription, "Never Forgotten."
"Not a day goes by when I don't think of the soldiers," he said. "They each mean something to me."
He continues to be haunted by hallucinations of that day -- the bullets, the blood.
"I would never want those visions to be taken away from me," he said. "They're a part of me . Even though they hurt me, it's a part of me."
For more stories and information about veterans, visit the YDR's veterans page.
For stories and resources for veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, visit American Homecomings.
Ted Czech/ 717-771-2033.