On Sept. 8, 2009 Brent Layton of Escalon and Nikki Freitas of Riverbank got the news no military parent ever wants to hear … their son had been killed in action while serving his country.
James Ray ‘Doc’ Layton was just 22 years old when he died that September day a little over two years ago, a Navy Corpsman who was doing his duty, tending to the wounds of a comrade when he himself was hit by enemy fire.
All of a sudden, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were more than something we heard about on the nightly news or read in snippets in the paper when a local military member was deployed.
This tragic death brought the war home. It wasn’t just something going on ‘over there somewhere’ anymore.
It made very real the threat that all our local men and women serving in the military around the world face every day. ‘Doc’ Layton gave his life for our freedoms, fighting to bring down the Taliban and the terrorist threat it poses to America and our allies.
He was remembered in a touching and impressive service at his gravesite in Burwood Cemetery on Thursday, complete with a flyover and 21-gun salute, the gathering requested by Dakota Meyer.
Now out of the military, Meyer was a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps serving alongside Layton and was responsible for recovering his body and those of other fallen comrades. Later promoted to sergeant, Meyer received the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on Thursday. And while he was recognized for his efforts by the nation, the soldiers he made sure got home to be buried on American soil were honored as well. Meyer wanted his comrades to be recognized that day, pointing to them as the real heroes.
When the body of James Layton was first returned home, there was a huge procession from the Modesto airport, into Escalon and later, for a funeral service, another caravan of vehicles moving to Burwood Cemetery.
Thursday, just a little more than two years later, the situation was similar, but this time it was the Patriot Guard Riders who led the way, the roar of dozens of motorcycles filling the morning air to start the procession.
Reporters, of course, are just supposed to cover stories, stay on the fringes and not get personally involved.
But when the story is about a family still coming to grips with the greatest loss you can suffer … how do you not get involved?
There’s no way to separate it. Brent Layton is a former police officer and I dealt with him routinely when he worked at the Escalon Police Department. James attended Vista High in Escalon and our paths crossed along the way.
Since his son’s death, Brent has become actively involved in veteran’s issues and advocacy, and helped coordinate the services around the country to coincide with Thursday’s medal ceremony.
James’ mom, Nikki, took the microphone at Thursday’s service and spoke publicly for the first time, offering her thanks to Dakota Meyer for making sure her son came home.
As a mother myself, I can’t even fathom the loss of a child. Just to even think of it brings such as intense pain that there’s no way to wrap my mind around having to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.
I stood there in admiration as Nikki, with courage and grace, spoke of her gratitude for the gift Dakota had given her, and gave thanks for the constant support of those around her.
Following the ceremony, I stood in a line of people wanting to share condolences with her and though I tried, it was impossible to stop the tears from coming when we met face to face. She was the one to do the comforting, as she grabbed me in a fierce hug and thanked me for being there, for telling James’ story, for making sure his sacrifice isn’t forgotten.
The recent 10th anniversary of 9/11 gave everyone the chance to stop and think about how our lives have changed since that day. And with war still going on, Thursday’s service was another reminder to keep the military in our thoughts and prayers and never forget the loss families across the country have suffered, sending loved ones off to war that don’t get the chance to come home and enjoy the freedoms they have fought for.
It’s up to us to keep their memory alive and honor the service they have given.