Long road to recovery for Windsor man who lived through Las Vegas shooting, Tubbs fire in the same week

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If You Need Help

Sonoma County has many mental health professionals who can offer help and treatment for people suffering from PTSD. In addition, the Sonoma County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers free weekly drop-in group sessions offering support and strategies for enhancing the mental health of anyone affected by the wildfires.

Support group meetings are held Tuesdays from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the NAMI Sonoma County office, 182 Farmers Lane, #202, Santa Rosa. A second group meets on Tuesdays from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the Airport Health Club, 432 Aviation Blvd, Santa Rosa.

No pre-registration is necessary. For more information, email/call/text the NAMI Warmline at 866-960-6264, or email warmline@namisoco.org.

The conversation that Bill Walton knows by heart, has happened over and over. It’s an exchange resulting in no answers and, when finished, only silence.

“So how are you doing?” Walton would ask.

“How am I doing?” would be the response. “How are you doing? You were in Vegas at the shooting.”

“Yeah,” Walton would reply, “but you lost your home.”

At least 20 times in the past two years, Walton guesses, he had that conversation. He and a friend would look at each other, weighing their grief, the awkwardness collapsing the exchange. After all, where do you go with that?

For Walton it ultimately meant going to therapy, where he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also, it meant retiring early from a job he loved: watch commander for the graveyard shift at the Sonoma County jail.

And Walton thought working at the jail challenged him. The PTSD went so deep he had to find answers to why he was sweating, vomiting, not sleeping and flinching at every sound he heard.

“Why is this happening to me?” Walton, 46, kept thinking to himself. He knew what he went through couldn’t be swept away with a shrug.

But let’s back up. On Oct. 1, 2017 Walton and his wife Heather were in the crowd with friends at Las Vegas Village, enjoying the Jason Aldean concert. Then the shots began.

“Initially,” Walton said, “I thought the speakers went bad.”

The couple initially fled, but Walton didn’t spend 22 years in law enforcement to flee from danger. Stopping about 700 yards from the shooter at Mandalay Bay Resort hotel, Bill performed triage on what he guesses were 20 people. Four of them didn’t make it.

“I have to do something!” Bill had said to Heather. “I have to go back in there.”

Heather responded appropriately for someone not trained in law enforcement.

“I have this,” Walton said, pointing to a scar just about the crook in his elbow. Heather dug her fingers into her husband.

“It was craziness,” he said. “People were screaming. ‘America is under attack! Terrorists are in Vegas! There’s bombs everywhere!’”

By the time the Waltons made it back to their room at the MGM Grand, Walton made the phone call. His best friend, Steve Brown, was back at the couple’s home in Windsor taking care of the two Walton children, Parker, 15, and Hannelore,14.

“I don’t know if we’re gonna make it out of this,” Walton told Brown. “Kiss my kids and tell them love them.”

That was Sunday morning after an event that claimed 58 lives, and wounded 527 people. On Tuesday, Walton tried to calm himself for a long-planned and emotional journey from Las Vegas to Lake Mead to spread his the ashes of his father, who had died four years earlier. The next Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire erupted.

In the telling of his story, this might be the time to pause.

Walton had no such luxury, to pause, his mind locked on full alert in the weeks and months that followed. Both his lieutenant, Mike Merchen, and his captain, John Naiman, told Walton to take a break, stay off the job for a bit. Walton, in the meantime, couldn’t take a break from his friends who lost their homes or where temporarily displaced. He couldn’t take a break from remembering Vegas or his dad, who also was in law enforcement. And there was no break when he smelled smoke or saw an orange sky in Windsor.

If You Need Help

Sonoma County has many mental health professionals who can offer help and treatment for people suffering from PTSD. In addition, the Sonoma County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness offers free weekly drop-in group sessions offering support and strategies for enhancing the mental health of anyone affected by the wildfires.

Support group meetings are held Tuesdays from 12:30-1:30 p.m. at the NAMI Sonoma County office, 182 Farmers Lane, #202, Santa Rosa. A second group meets on Tuesdays from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at the Airport Health Club, 432 Aviation Blvd, Santa Rosa.

No pre-registration is necessary. For more information, email/call/text the NAMI Warmline at 866-960-6264, or email warmline@namisoco.org.

In other words, Walton couldn’t take a break from being human.

“In law enforcement you learn to be tough, strong,” he said. “You learn to man-up, get through stuff. Working the jail, you know every Friday and Saturday night you’re going hands-on (to physically suppress an individual in an belligerent state). I’d come home and Heather would ask me how my shift went and I’d say something like, ‘Another day at the office’.”

Walton stayed home until October 22. Then he worked four-night shifts. Only four, he is very clear about that.

“Before each shift I’d be home throwing up,” Walton said. “My stomach would cramp. I was sweating. Wouldn’t feel like eating. I’d get headaches. I’d wonder ‘What the hell is happening to me?’“

As if he needed any more evidence that his gyroscope was off center, one night at work Walton came to a cell where a wide-eyed inmate had shattered a telephone, grabbed two plastic shards and shouted, “I’m gonna kill myself!”

Walton’s face was blank, as were his emotions. As he found out, it represented a contradictory moment. He was full of emotions but he had put a lid on them. Slowly the steam seeped out. He broke down and cried in front of Naiman and Merchen. He and Heather shared many a tear. He’d be home by himself, sometimes, and start crying.

“My lieutenant asked me what I needed,” he said. “I told him I didn’t know what I needed.”

Walton began with two therapy sessions a week. That lasted eight months. Still in therapy, Walton is not completely free from that knee-jerk fight-or-flight response. During this interview a squeaky dog barked. Walton snapped his head to the right, searching for the reason for the sound.

Walton still second-guesses himself. Could he have left Heather and gone back and attended to more concertgoers? That, after all, is not just his training talking. It’s his compassion. Bill had been a team member of Emergency Response for seven years. But if he was to leave Heather and something were to happen to her and he wasn’t around. . .

That’s when he stops spinning on that one.

Up until six months ago, existence was a torture-fest for Walton. Sounds, sights, words, pictures — all of them were triggers. But now, the constant jitteriness and pinging in his head is not ever-present. Both Bill and Heather are working their way through their issues, accepting it could be a slog one day, a day at the beach the next.

Bill is now in his fourth month as assistant account manager for security at Kaiser Permanente. Heather runs a day spa. Both have spoken publicly about their struggles to recover from back-to-back trauma. Both have been honest, forthcoming and willing to go back and relive those days of two years ago. Not because they are maudlin. For them it’s not dwelling on the negative. It’s building on the positive.

See, they are alive and being alive beats whatever comes in second.

To comment write to bobpadecky@gmail.com

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