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Mom sees son’s panel for 1st time

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POSTED May 16, 2013 2:02 a.m.

Nikki Freitas pinned down quivering lips as she surveyed the newest panel in the Welcome Home Heroes series.

She approached it slowly, captivated by the young man smiling back at her through the glass.

His was a familiar grin.

It was her son, the late James Layton, a Navy Corpsman and Escalon native.

With a touch as soft as a feather, Freitas ran her finger over a picture of Layton in cap and camouflage fatigues, imagining it were his skin and clothing she was touching.

“This one was taken while he was eating MREs in the field,” she recalled. “That’s why he’s so swollen. I guess that stuff fills you or something.

“… This one was taken at his graduation in Chicago,” she later said, pointing to a picture of Layton in his Dress Blues.

Frietas stood in front of the panel for nearly 10 minutes, clutching a tissue. A charm on her necklace carried a picture of Layton. She was awestruck by the beauty of it all – the 4-foot-tall panel, the color pictures, the hundreds of names, as well as the effort it took to produce such a tribute.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said falling into Pastor Mike Dillman’s embrace. “It’s so beautiful. So many people worked hard to put this together. It’s nice that we appreciate the men and women that don’t come home and those that do – but especially those that give up everything.”

The panel was unveiled to Freitas and members of her immediate family on Wednesday afternoon by Dillman and his staff at The Place of Refuge church.

It will join the other 11 panels at Woodward Park on May 26 for a Memorial Day celebration. The panels are currently in Alabama for a birthday tribute/memorial hike for Mike Forester, a fallen soldier whose pictures grace panel No. 11.

Each panel consists of 700 names, honoring soldiers that lost their lives in the line of duty. The Welcome Home Heroes board selected a soldier’s story and pictures to dress the panel. Layton has become the 12th whose image graces the panels.

The 22-year-old was killed in the Kunar province of Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, on Sept. 8, 2009. Layton was with a Marine training unit supporting Afghan troops when they were ambushed by insurgents.

Layton left a secure position to provide medical assistance to Marine 1st Lt. Michael Johnson. He, Johnson and two other Marines died in the attack.

Reports indicate Layton was tending to Johnson’s wounds when both soldiers were killed.

That Layton was from nearby Escalon and his ties to Riverbank and the surrounding region was inconsequential to his selection, Dillman said.

“James’ story, as it turns out, involves one of the most controversial battles of that war,” Dillman said. “Those kids were pinned down for nine hours, crying for support.

“Help never came.”

“He could have saved his own butt,” he later added, “but he went out in the fire. That kid was a real hero.”

The act of heroism and selflessness comes as no surprise to his family.

Jesse Layton said his older brother was mischievous and daring -- “I was always his target,” Jesse quipped -- but that Layton was dependable and always accountable for his actions.

He was the quintessential big brother.

“That’s who he was,” Jesse Layton said. “He always put others first when it came to his family, friends and comrades.”

“He meant the world to me. He was my best friend and role model.”

Freitas says she is ready to celebrate her son’s life and participate in the Welcome Home Heroes program.

“It’s taken me a longtime,” she said, “but I’d like to be more involved.”

Freitas and her family spent about an hour at The Place of Refuge, sorting through the Memorial Day agenda. She will be re-presented with Layton’s Bronze State and Purple Heart.

She hopes to finally meet Cpl. Dakota Meyer, the Marine who carried Layton’s body out of the warzone. Meyer was scheduled to attend the Memorial Day celebration, but recently informed Dillman that he could not make the engagement.

“I understand why he can’t make it. It must be really tough on him,” Freitas said, “but I’d love to finally meet him.”

The Memorial Day celebration will feature 5-kilometer race, a car raffle and car show. On Friday, volunteers will place crosses in the ground for – yet another tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in combat.

Dillman hinted that Layton’s panel may be Welcome Home Heroes’ last. He’d like to plan a reunion for the families of those photographed for next year’s celebration.

He also hopes to retire the panels at a Northern California VA hospital.

The panels also have a scheduled stay aboard the U.S.S. Midway in San Diego in September.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Melissa Villa, Layton’s girlfriend, her eyes fixed on the photographs.

“It’s amazing.”

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