SALT LAKE CITY — Terminal 1 of Salt Lake City International Airport was crowded Thursday night as people gathered to cheer the arrival of friends and family.
It is a scene often repeated at the airport, as thousands of travelers pass daily through the terminal. Amid the throngs holding signs for returning LDS missionaries was the family of Sgt. Greg Orton, eager to welcome him home after he was injured in Afghanistan four months ago.
Orton, a member of the Army Reserves' 744th Engineer Company of North Ogden, had been in Afghanistan since last fall and on April 15, he was shot in the head during his service, according to his mother. While the company's main responsibility is route clearance — looking for roadside bombs and safely disposing of them — Orton was hit by a stray bullet from enemy fire.
"We worried all these years about bombs and never thought he'd be injured by a single bullet," Chris Orton said. She said her son was wearing a helmet at the time, which stopped the bullet, but he experienced a fractured skull that has required him to go through months of physical therapy.
He was first taken to Germany, where doctors did what they could to help him, but eventually he ended up back in the states for additional treatment and extensive therapy.
"He's had all kinds of therapy," she said. "They have more therapy than you can imagine." He'll continue that therapy at the local VA Hospital until surgeons call him back to a military hospital in Bethesda, Md., to replace the portion of his skull that was removed to allow for a smoother recovery.
His unit returns home from Afghanistan in October and Chris Orton said her son "wants to be here for that."
The sergeant said he can't remember the details surrounding the incident when he was injured. He was short for words Thursday, holding his 20-month-old daughter, McKenna, in his arms, but was happy to be home with family.
"I got home a lot sooner than I thought I would," he said.
Greg Orton's wife, Nikki Orton, said that learning of her husband's accident gave her the worst feeling of her life. She said family members had been supportive, regularly visiting him in California during his treatment at the VA Hospital in Palo Alto. Now that he's back in Utah, the family plans to go to the Training Table restaurant for one of the soldier's favorites — cheese fries.
"I'm very happy," Nikki Orton said. "It's nice to be home all together."
Chris Orton said her son is "true blue Army," adding that he first became serious about enlisting with the military in high school and quickly signed up when he turned 18.
"He was one of those kids that played G.I. Joe," she said.
The soldier also served a tour in Iraq, returning in 2007, and often spoke of the pride he felt of the work being done there. "When they left the area they were working in, kids were playing in the streets," Chris Orton said.
She said doctors have praised her son's attitude during his recovery and physical therapy. And he has told her he wants to return to military service in the future, but those decisions are still a long way off.
For now, the family is happy to have him home, in Rose Park.
Contributing: Wendy Leonard