My daughter, Dana Nannetti, and I took my great-grands to the Hands on Childrens Museum last Veteran’s Day weekend to make some new memories. Prairie is five and Willow, her brother, is two, so they aren’t always interested in the same things.
Prairie enjoyed many slides down the “Big Blue Slide,” as she calls it, and examining different kind of slides under the microscope, while Willow gleefully filled, refilled and dumped the dump trucks in the outdoor sandbox.
My daughter, their “Nana,” was primarily with Willow while I stayed close to Prairie. But every so often, we would all come together and Willow would wrap his little hand around my finger and lead me to his next adventure.
This will end up being my favorite memory…this and his giggle of delight, which I heard many times during our visit.
It’s funny how new memories can bring back old ones. I had four daughters and four granddaughters when my first grandson came along. We were all over the moon when James was born.
There were so many ‘firsts’ with our boy. His dad played the guitar, so when he was two, I gave him a toy guitar for Christmas. After he opened it, he refused to open any other gifts, happily playing his guitar all morning.
I remember taking him with me to the store and, after watching him fill my cart with junk food, explaining to him that we had to leave some food for the other shoppers so they wouldn’t go home hungry. He took this quite well.
And the time he spent the night with me, chattering away long after we went to bed. I finally told him I had to go to sleep and couldn’t do that while he was talking. So, he rolled over and was quiet for about two minutes before he thought of something else, he had to share.
I pretended to be asleep and didn’t respond to his latest story. After a minute or two, he leaned over my shoulder, gave me a kiss on my cheek, rolled over and promptly went to sleep.
As he grew older, I discovered we shared the same wacky sense of humor. When he turned eighteen, I was living in Texas and he was in California so I had to ship him his birthday gift - a neon sign that said “Live Nudes” for his bedroom.
His mother said he loved the sign, but mostly because it had come from me. None of his friends got gifts like this from their grandmothers.
James worked during his senior year in high school at a local fast-food place. After his graduation, I got the phone call that would change my life forever. His mother told him he had to make the call himself…which was how I found out he had joined the Navy.
I tried to be upbeat and supportive about this. He wanted to be a medic, he said, and use his GI Bill to go to medical school after he got out of the service. I tried to reassure myself he would be fine – a medic on a ship would be safe.
Nobody told me the Marines did not have their own medical soldiers, and used the Navy Medics.
James had most of his medical training in Japan and Hawaii. More training followed in the states with the Marines before being deployed to Afghanistan. He wrote glowing letters to his mother about the friendliness and warmth of the Afghan people he had met, and I began to breathe a little easier.
Then came the ambush by the Taliban insurgents:
Navy Hospital Corpsman HM3 James “Doc” Layton died September 8, 2009, in Kunar province, Afghanistan, when his unit was ambushed by insurgents. Also killed were Marine 1LT Michael Johnson, SSG Aaron Kenefick, and Gunnery SGT Edwin Wayne Johnson.
Their unit was on a mission to meet village elders and establish the Afghan government’s authority in the mountains near the Pakistani border, a largely Taliban-controlled tribal region through which fighters and weapons are smuggled. The troops walked into the valley leading to the village, which was surrounded on three sides by mountains. As daylight broke, they began to hear shots and realized they had walked into a trap.
From the slopes of the mountains, gunfire and grenades rained down on about 80 Afghan soldiers and 12 U.S. troops. Taking cover, they radioed for help, but helicopter support would not arrive for 80 minutes.
After the six-hour firefight was over, Layton’s body was found slumped over 1LT Johnson – bandage wrappings scattered around their bodies.
During the attack, Layton had rushed from his sheltered position with his first aid kit to help his wounded comrade and was struck by gunfire while tending his wounds.
“This guy died a hero,” said CPL Dakota Meyer, the Marine who retrieved Layton’s body. In 2011, CPL Meyer received the Medal of Honor in recognition for his acts of extraordinary valor during this battle.
James was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and two Purple Hearts. James was wounded somehow (we never knew exactly what happened) two days before his death. The powers that be offered to send him home. He refused, saying there was no backup Medic for the upcoming mission and that he was ok.
Thanks to Dakota Meyers’ refusal to leave his fellow soldiers behind, we were able to have our boy brought home for burial.
The image of his mother walking across the tarmac toward the plane, to present the young man who accompanied his body home, with a bouquet of flowers is forever burned in my brain…as is the thought that kept repeating itself while I watched her… “Hail Nikki, full of grace…”
James’ Mother, Nikki Freitas, now lives in Olympia with us, and will attend her first local Gold Star Moms event in the spring.
Today, I have two other grandsons (James’ brothers), five great-grandsons, one great-great grandson, six grand-daughters and three great grand-daughters.
Today, they, grand-daughters and grandsons, are all safe…and I pray every day they stay that way.
In the meantime, I continue to hold the tiny hand that makes more memories possible and my heart to sing.
Kathleen Anderson writes this column each week from her home in Olympia. Contact her at kathleen@theJOLTnews.com or post your comment below
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