Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Paul Kendall (P.K.) Carlton, Jr., MD, FACS, received the American College of Surgeons (ACS) Distinguished Military Contribution Award during the virtual Convocation ceremony, Sunday evening, October 24. The award recognizes Dr. Carlton’s outstanding contributions to the field of surgery while serving in the military. He is the third recipient of the award in the College’s 108-year history.
Dr. Carlton has had a long and distinguished medical and military career. He completed his term as Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force in October 2002 prior to his retirement from active duty military service in December 2002. Dr. Carlton was promoted to a three-star Lieutenant General in December 1999. He commanded more than 40,000 airmen across 75 facilities during his military career. He was responsible for developing Critical Care in Air Transport Teams (CCATT) that have transformed the battlefield care of those injured, getting them home in days instead of six to seven weeks during the Vietnam conflict. He contributed to the Expeditionary MEDical System, known as EMEDS. He also oversaw the outfitting of the C-17 Globemaster airlift plane as a flying critical care air transport (CCAT) that shuttled more than 12,000 wounded warriors to Landstuhl Air Force Base, Germany, and then on to stateside locations.
Those who served with him describe Dr. Carlton as having an “uncommon savvy for military operational needs,” and say that his creative thinking and innovative approach to the military expeditionary medical footprint is what set him apart. He also has helped support military-civilian partnerships for maintenance of trauma training for Air Force physicians. His current passion is to bring the methods that have provided the excellent survival of the war-wounded home to the U.S. to improve rural trauma care.
Notably, Dr. Carlton was present at the Pentagon during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Minutes after an airplane struck the Pentagon, he led a team into the impact area while the building was unstable and still burning to pull three injured colleagues from the rubble. Dr. Carlton also helped with disaster medical reconstruction following the 2011 tornado in Joplin, MO, and played a vital role in the delivery of surgical care during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. He has championed the defeat of COVID infections by using a multilayered air defense system, given that COVID is an airborne respiratory disease. This “clean air” strategy has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the key methods to defeat the transmission of this virus.
During his surgical and military career, Dr. Carlton has performed more than 4,000 operations as principal surgeon and more than 6,000 surgical procedures as first assistant. He continued to take surgical calls as the commander at the Wilford Hall Medical Center Level I Trauma Center, Lackland Air Force Base, TX. He remains an active contributor to surgical peer-reviewed publications. He has been an ACS Fellow since 1981, and served as the College’s Air Force Governor (1992−1996). He is the recipient of the Airman’s Medal, Air Medal, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Legion of Merit Award with Oak Leaf Cluster, and National Defense Service Medal with Service Star.
The Distinguished Military Contribution Award was established by the ACS Board of Regents Honors Committee in 2018 to recognize distinguished contributions to the advancement of military surgery. Recipients of this award must be physicians with a demonstrated commitment to the advancement of military surgical care but are not required to be in active practice. In considering recipients, the Honors Committee receives input for the award from the Military Health System Strategic Partnership−ACS, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of Defense, the ACS Committee on Trauma, and the entire ACS membership.
Dr. Carlton is a 1969 distinguished honor graduate of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Academy. He is from a family of military aviators and the son of Gen. Paul K. Carlton, Sr., who flew B-17 and B-29 bombers in World War II. Dr. Carlton earned his medical degree from the University of Colorado, Denver, in 1973. He completed his general surgery residency training in June 1978 at Wilford Hall Medical Center, immediately followed by an assignment as staff surgeon with the Royal Air Force in Lakenheath, United Kingdom. He was promoted to chief of general surgery at the USAF Hospital at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and returned to the U.S. in April 1979. While in Arizona, he was appointed as a general surgery consultant to the Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force, a position he would hold later.
Dr. Carlton remained at Luke Air Force Base until May 1982, when he was named chairman, department of surgery, at the USAF Regional Medical Center for the Wiesbaden Air Base, West Germany, followed by three commander positions beginning in 1985—the first as commander of the USAF Hospital in Torrejon Air Base, Madrid, Spain (1985−1988), followed by commander of the USAF Medical Center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, (1988−1991). While at Scott, he also served as commander of the 1702nd Air Refueling Wing Contingency Hospital in Southwest Asia (1990−1991). He was then appointed director of medical services and training for the Headquarters Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. He returned to Lackland three years later as commander of the 59th Medical Wing at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center. From May through November 1999, he served as the commander and director of the Air Force Medical Operations Agency in the Office of the Surgeon General at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC, prior to his appointment as the 17th Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Force in November 1999.