The body of Petty Officer 3rd Class James Layton of Riverbank returned to the valley Tuesday, a week after he was killed in a battle in eastern Afghanistan, bringing home the reality of the war in that part of the world.
In a ceremony at Modesto Airport, with Layton's family looking on, Navy service members transferred the casket draped in an American flag from a chartered airplane to a hearse. Family members then rode in a procession of police cars, fire engines and the Patriot Guard veterans motorcycle group through east Modesto to Riverbank and a mortuary in Escalon.
At many places along the route, groups of people held flags or waved as the procession rumbled past. Just north of Riverbank, an archway was created over Santa Fe Road by extending fire engine ladders and holding an American flag over the roadway. In Escalon, 150 people lined Main Street to greet the procession.
People had many reasons for turning out: They knew Layton when he was a fun- loving teenager, they wanted to support the family or they were inspired by his story.
Layton, a Navy corpsman, was killed Sept. 8 in a firefight in eastern Afghanistan while giving medical attention to a wounded Marine lieutenant. He was with a force of Afghan troops and their U.S. trainers that was ambushed by insurgents near the village of Ganjgal.
Layton and three Marines, who also were killed, were near the front of the column when the shooting started.
Layton is the 28th service member from the Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothills to die in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Navy officials told his father that the corpsman will receive two Purple Heart medals. On Sept. 6, two days before the battle, Layton was on patrol when he was injured by a roadside bomb blast. He had comrades patch up his injuries and elected to stay with the mission instead of going on medical leave, said Brent Layton of Escalon, his father.
"If it was me I would have said, 'send me home,' " Brent Layton said. "But he didn't. It hurts, but it makes me feel even more proud. He ran to the battle, not from it."
James Layton was assigned to a Marine Corps battalion training Afghan troops. The promising sailor, who enlisted in 2007, was encouraged by superiors to take an exam to achieve his petty officer rank. His chief officer in Okinawa, Japan, where the unit was trained, traveled to Modesto for Tuesday's ceremony and the military services set for Thursday.
Escalon resident Russell Collins decided to ride with the Patriot Guard because he knows the Layton family. The former Marine said Navy corpsmen often are assigned to Marine units and are trained to give medical aid under fire.
"You always protect a corpsman in a fight because someday he's going to save your life," said Collins, who has served two Iraq tours with the National Guard. "He did the ultimate sacrifice."
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People watching the procession said they wanted to show support for the troops and Layton's family.
Lenora Garrett, a 2001 graduate of Modesto's Davis High School, recalled meeting Layton as a student from another high school. She stood alongside Mitchell Road with her 5-year-old son, Gunnar.
"It's awesome what he did," Garrett said. "He is a hero. It's also important for our younger generation to be aware of what's going on."
Layton was a hometown hero for groups gathered on Highway 108 and at Atchison Road and First Street in Riverbank. Layton's mother, Nikki Freitas, two brothers and a sister live in Riverbank. He graduated from Vista High School in Escalon in 2005, where his father and two younger brothers live.
"You have to show support," said Joni Faria of Riverbank. "You may not understand what they are doing but you have to support the troops."
The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, local fire and police departments, ambulance companies and veterans groups were among the agencies that organized and supported the ceremonies Tuesday.
Layton also was honored outside California. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma flew its flags at half-staff last week in honor of the corpsman's bravery, said Brent Layton, who is Cherokee.
Vietnam veterans often mention that similar gestures were not shown to troops returning from that unpopular war. Brent Layton said the efforts Tuesday made a difference for the family.
"It was more than we anticipated," he said. "The help was offered. We didn't have to ask."
Groups such as the 75-member American Legion Post 263 in Escalon answered the call. The veterans group posted the Stars and Stripes along Main Street.
Ken Miller, a former Navy corpsman of Escalon, was in a helicopter shot down outside Da Nang during the Vietnam War. He admired and understood Layton's sacrifice.
"When a Marine goes down, you are responsible to keep him alive," he said. "And what it takes to keep him alive you do. Your life comes second."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.