Riverbank sailor killed in ambush

Amid barrage, he tried to help hurt Marine

September 10, 2009 

Navy corpsman James Layton of Riverbank was killed Tuesday in Afghanistan as he tended to a wounded soldier during a firefight.

Layton, a 22-year-old petty officer third class, was with a training team supporting Afghan troops in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border. He was among four Marines killed in an ambush described in a Bee story Wednesday.

About 100 Afghan soldiers, border officers, Marines and U.S. Army trainers were pinned down as insurgents unleashed a barrage of gunfire and rockets.

Layton was bending over a Marine lieutenant, tending to his wounds, when both were killed.

"He's a hero — we are very proud of him," said Kathy Anderson, Layton's grandmother from Dallas, who traveled to Riverbank to grieve with the family.

Military officials notified the family of his death Tuesday. Layton's younger sister, Jordan, filled one wall of her bedroom with photos of her brother's life, from childhood to his enlistment in the Navy. Family members planned to honor Layton by getting tattoos, an image of an anchor with the dates Jan. 29, 1987, to Sept. 8, 2009.

Word of his death saddened the small staff at Vista High School in Escalon, where Layton attended classes to earn a diploma in 2005.

He enlisted in the Navy two years ago, following in the path of his grandfather, the late Ray Hughes of Escalon, a Korean War veteran.

Layton was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, to train with a Marine Corps unit for a mission in Afghanistan. He had been in Afghanistan for about two months, said his mother, Nikki Freitas. She last talked with him by phone two weeks ago.

"He said he was bored, waiting for his orders," Freitas said. "He wanted to be out doing what they sent him there to do. ... He liked the camaraderie. He said he might not come home at Christmas because he didn't want to leave the other guys there."

The grief-stricken family members said they were proud to hear he died assisting a wounded soldier in the line of fire.

Training mission in village

Layton and the three other Marines were at the front of a column heading on foot into the small village of Ganjigal.

They were on a training mission with Afghan forces who were to search the village for weapons and then meet village elders under an agreement to establish government authority there. Insurgent forces had set up positions in the village and in the mountains on either side; they attacked as the men reached the first compound.

Layton evidently had been giving medical aid when he and the wounded Marine — Lt. Michael Johnson of Virginia Beach, Va. — came under fierce attack, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer of Greensburg, Ky., told McClatchy Newspapers. He and others said they found wrappings of bandages and other medical gear strewn around Layton and Johnson.

The two other Marines killed in action were Gunnery Sgt. Edwin Johnson Jr. of Columbus, Ga., and Staff Sgt. Aaron Kenefick of Roswell, Ga.

A McClatchy reporter, embedded with the Marine unit, was farther back in the column, about 250 yards from the front when the ambush began.

Eight Afghan soldiers and border officers and an Afghan interpreter died in the attack. Three Americans and 19 Afghans were wounded.

Shane Bua, a teacher at Vista High, said Layton attended the continuation school because traditional high school wasn't for him.

Bua recalled a quiet, intelligent student in the classroom, but afterward the teen-ager enjoyed talking with the teacher about heavy metal music and going to concerts. His talkative girlfriend, Melissa Villa, also lit up the conversations.

"I wouldn't say he was a giant go-getter, but he recognized the need to do something with his life," Bua said. "I knew he was going to end up somewhere instead of floating the rest of his life."

Villa said Thursday that, during his high school days, Layton talked about his dream of serving with the Navy SEALs, an elite special operations force, and how he was inspired by his grandfather's Naval service.

By the time he enlisted, he was more intent on training as a medic and getting an education in health care. His plan was to see the world during eight years of military service and then get a civilian job as a radiology technologist, his mother said.

He told family members that he loved the people and the food during his time on Okinawa.

"He wanted to make a difference," Anderson said. "He was a very caring person, so it didn't surprise me that he was looking at the healing profession."

Layton also is survived by his father, Brent Layton of Escalon; two younger brothers, Jonathan and Jesse; a stepsister, Andrea; and stepbrother, Jason. The family said a funeral will be held next week.

Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this story.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

Editor's note: Read Jon Landay's earlier account of the deaths of Layton and three others by clicking on the story link at left or by clicking here.

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