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News > 42nd Medical Group colonel earns Air Medal as flight surgeon
42nd Medical Group colonel earns Air Medal as flight surgeon
Col. (Dr.) James W. Walter, chief of the medical staff for the 42nd Medical Group, recently received an Air Medal for meritorious service while deployed. (U.S. Air Force photo/Melanie Rodgers Cox)
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42nd Medical Group colonel earns Air Medal as flight surgeon

Posted 9/8/2009   Updated 9/8/2009 Email story   Print story


by Kimberly L. Wright
Air University Public Affairs

9/8/2009 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- For Col. (Dr.) James W. Walter, service is a family tradition, so it is no surprise that his distinguished service has earned applause from his superiors. The type of award he earned, however, is rarely given to medical officers.

Colonel Walter received an Air Medal from Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander, U.S. Air Force Central, for his meritorious service on delicate assignments providing medical care to enemy detainees. From January 2007 to 2009 as the senior detainee movement flight surgeon, he provided 106 combat hours of support to the 14 Joint Task Force Detainee Movement Operations missions in the C-17A. His service included travel into 15 different countries, some of them in an active enemy fire zone.

The Air Medal is a military decoration awarded to a person who has distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight on a regular and frequent basis in the performance of primary duties. It was established by Executive Order 9158, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 11, 1942.

Earning the award makes Colonel Walter feel much closer in spirit to his late father, Col. John A. Walter, a career Air Force pilot who flew in the Korean and Vietnam wars and who also served in World War II as an Army private first class. "It's kind of neat to get a medal on the flying side rather than the medical side," said Colonel Walter. "My father would be proud."

With such a strong heritage of family military service, his personal goal in life always felt abundantly clear. "Our family has always been in the military. It was always my plan to be in the military from day one," he said.

Although a self-professed military brat, Colonel Water has an abiding love and deep roots in his de facto home state. He grew up in Snowdown, a rural area just south of Montgomery, and attended medical school at The University of Alabama and Birmingham Southern College. His son and daughter have also grown up here.

His son is attending Auburn University, and his daughter is a 10th grader at Eastwood Academy.

While spending his formative years here, Colonel Walter received his first glimpse of the medical profession at what was then Maxwell's hospital. As a teenager from age 16 to 18, he worked in the operating room as a volunteer, which provided him with unique career exploration opportunities such as assisting orthopedic surgery and helping put on casts, experiences that just aren't possible for a teenager anymore. Volunteering at the hospital solidified in his mind what he wanted to do to serve his country. "I discovered I really like being in the operating room," he said.

Colonel Walter has enjoyed a 20-year Air Force career and a 4-year career in the Virginia Air National Guard, including time at a deployed theater hospital in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from March to June 2003. He has been stationed at Langley AFB, Va.; Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; RAF Croughton, U.K.; RAF Fairford, U.K.; RAF Upper Heyford, U.K.; Hill AFB, Utah; and Carswell AFB, Texas.

He also earned a unique duty - as a NASA space shuttle launch and recovery physician as part of the Department of Defense's multiagency support of space shuttle launches and landings. He and other Air Force physicians and pararescuemen are on hand at Cape Canaveral, Spain, France and other sites in case something goes wrong, providing rescue and medical support to astronauts and others who may be impacted by mishaps, including crashes, bailouts and other incidents.

The teams and backup teams are posted at various far-flung sites to facilitate any and all possible calamities, he explained. "The shuttle goes so fast and high at launch that if it loses an engine, it may land in Europe," he said.

Each rescue team is made up of 4 doctors and 8 pararescuemen. "All 4 of us are on the ground at launch or landing." Approximately 20-24 doctors take part, and of those doctors, Colonel Walter is the oldest, a 17-year veteran of the program.
He is next scheduled to support the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, slated to launch Nov. 12.

In addition to being on hand for launches and landings, the rescue and recovery teams that deploy out of Patrick AFB keep their rescue skills sharp through routine exercises that occur once or twice every year.

According to a 1992 NASA document, the rescue exercises are divided into 8 modes representing the eight different rescue scenarios, including variations on prelaunch and postlanding situations, as well as an in-flight bailout scernario called Mode VIII. In a Mode VIII exercise, "they get real astronauts and put them in the water for rescue and transport," Colonel Walter said. "They take all this very seriously."

Colonel Walter is very proud to use his medical skills to support space exploration. "People are still excited about space and the space program. I've very blessed to have gotten the chance to participate in it," he said.

This long-time mission is coming to an end, however. According to NASA, the final shuttle flight will be the launch of Discovery for mission STS-134, with a targeted launch date of Sept. 16, 2010. NASA will replace the space shuttle fleet with the Orion crew exploration vehicle, a craft similar to the Apollo capsule used to carry man to the moon. This craft is slated to begin carrying humans to the International Space Station in 2015 and to the moon by 2020.

While at Maxwell, Colonel Walter has served as chief flight medicine/emergency medicine physician and chief of the medical staff, flight medicine/emergency medicine physician. His duties as chief of the medical staff include leadership duties, such as overseeing medical care provided for 50,000 beneficiaries, credentialing oversight and management of 72 privileged providers, formulating medical plans, policies and procedures for medical group.

Colonel Walter is leaving Maxwell in mid-September to accept an assignment at Brooks City-Base AFB, Texas, where he will serve as the chief of the Contingency Operations Division. He will focus on expeditionary medicine and critical care transport, as well as "doing a lot of teaching and travel."

While excited about taking on new duties, he has mixed feelings about leaving his long-time home. "I've been blessed to have been here 5 years. But I'll be back here," he said.

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