Jeff Jardine: Hero receives Medal of Honor in controversial Afghan battle

10/16/2013 8:21 PM

10/17/2013 8:20 AM

In war, heroism is measured in how a person reacts and responds under fire to save or aid others.

Tuesday, and for the second time in two years, President Barack Obama decorated a member of the military for heroism exhibited during the same 2009 battle in Afghanistan that claimed the life of Riverbank’s James Layton and four other Americans. This time, former Army Capt. William Swenson received the accolades and the nation’s gratitude.

Dad Brent Layton and James Layton’s mother, Nikki Freitas, can only hope Swenson’s legacy remains free of the doubt and the controversy that still dog the battle’s other Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer. He received his medal in 2011.

When a soldier, sailor or Marine dies, families deserve a straightforward and completely factual accounting of what happened, how it happened and why it happened.

James Layton was a 22-year-old petty officer in the Navy assigned to a Marine unit in September 2009 in Afghanistan’s Ganjgal Valley. Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy reporter embedded with the unit, exposed the deadly errors and decisions made by the chain of command leading all the way up to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Initially, military officials told Brent Layton and Freitas to disregard Landay’s reporting. Eventually, though, Marine Brig. Gen. James Laster confirmed Landay’s accuracy, Brent Layton said.

“The general told us personally that Jonathan’s reporting was right on the money,” Layton told me in an interview after they received the report three years ago. “They flat came out and said, ‘We screwed up.’”

Landay’s reporting compelled the military to release a 500-page report about the incident to Layton’s parents in 2010.

“This was a big mess,” Freitas told me this week. “None of this would have come out if Jonathan hadn’t been there.”

Meyer, according to those who recommended him for the Medal of Honor, braved enemy fire to retrieve the four fallen Americans – James Layton among them – killed numerous insurgents and rescued Afghan soldiers being trained by his unit. Meyer later wrote a book about the battle. Since that time, Meyer’s version of what happened that day has been questioned, based upon a video taken from an Army medevac helicopter. The Marine and Army versions of what happened differ, and the video supports the latter, Landay reported.

“The videos add to the findings of an ongoing McClatchy investigation that determined crucial parts of Meyer’s memoir were untrue, unsubstantiated or exaggerated, as were the Marine Corps and White House accounts of how he helped extract casualties from the valley under fire,” Landay wrote. No one disputes that Meyer performed heroically and was worthy of the honor, which made any embellishment unnecessary, Landay maintained.

All stated, where does this leave James Layton’s parents? Whom do they believe? What should they believe?

Freitas said she doesn’t know Meyer. She hasn’t had the opportunity to meet with him, to understand his role and actions that day four years ago, and listen to him explain in detail how her son died. “This whole thing doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Did he really get my son out?”

Brent Layton, though, has had several conversations with Meyer over the past few years and met with him in Texas in April 2011.

Nothing Landay nor anyone else has written changes Brent Layton’s opinion or raises any doubts about Meyer’s role in the battle or whether he deserved the honor bestowed. “Absolutely not,” said Layton, who attended Tuesday’s ceremony for Swenson at the White House and a reception at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Layton said he talked to the pilots whose chopper produced the video. The battle, he said they told him, raged in two places. The video, he said, encompassed only one.

“Nobody could really tell what was going on,” Layton said. “I thought it was in poor taste to bring it up, to be slinging mud at a time when we should be honoring Will (Swenson’s) Medal of Honor,” he added, referring to another story by Landay, which ran Tuesday in The Bee

Still, their son died the most honorable way possible, serving his country.

The truth, from what transpired to the depictions of who did what and when to the honors bestowed, should never be left open to question.

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