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Heroes Honored - Ceremonies Note Sacrifice
Two years later and thousands of miles apart, two American heroes were honored. One, presented with the Medal of Honor by the President of the United States. The other, remembered in a graveside ceremony at Burwood Cemetery.

But the two are forever intertwined and family members of the late James Ray 'Doc' Layton, 22, a Navy Corpsman who died in a firefight in Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009, added their thanks to Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer on Thursday.

Meyer, who was a U.S. Marine Corps corporal on that September day, pulled the bodies of Layton and three other fallen comrades out of a ditch where they had gone to seek cover during a firefight. Because of Meyer's bravery, the families of those killed in action in that Ganjgal Valley ambush were able to have their bodies brought home, able to bury them with dignity.

It's a fact that James Layton's mom, Nikki Freitas of Riverbank, said made all the difference to her.

"Dakota Meyer, thank you so much for bringing home my son," Freitas said as she took the podium at Burwood Cemetery on Thursday, the first time she has spoken publicly about her son's death. "By letting us bury him ... you gave us the peace we needed to go on."

Freitas said she wouldn't have been able to get to where she is today if she hadn't had the closure of a funeral service and knowing that her son was on home soil. For that, she said, Meyer is a very real hero.

"He's a beautiful person and a very brave man," Freitas said. "And I just wanted to thank him."

Meyer, who later was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and has since left the military, received the Medal of Honor in a ceremony at the White House in a 2:30 p.m. ceremony Thursday, accepting the honor from President Barack Obama. Meyer's one request: that those who perished that day, whose bodies he recovered and brought home, also be remembered in ceremonies at the same time he was receiving his medal.

Brent Layton of Escalon, James' father, helped coordinate the ceremonies around the country for the soldiers lost on Sept. 8, 2009 in addition to James Layton - 1st Lt. Michael Johnson of Virginia, Staff Sgt. Aaron Kendrick of Georgia, and gunnery Sgt. Edwin Wayne Johnson Jr. of Georgia. Also honored with a ceremony was Sgt. Kenneth W. Westbrook of New Mexico, who died later of wounds suffered that day.

The events on Thursday began at the Escalon Community Center, with a large contingent of the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle unit forming up there, in addition to several Escalon Police Department, Escalon Fire Department, Escalon Community Ambulance vehicles, veterans' organizations and family and friends' vehicles. At 11 a.m., the procession left from the Community Center and motored along McHenry Avenue, then took River Road to Burwood for the 11:30 a.m. ceremony.

At the cemetery, the ceremony included remarks from Capt. Chuck Roots, U.S. Navy, an opening prayer, remarks by Brent Layton, a wreath laying, a fly over and more. Presentations were made to the family from the Office of Congressman Jeff Denham and the Marine Corps League of Modesto posthumously inducted 'Doc' Layton into their unit. A 21-gun salute, the playing of Taps and closing comments rounded out the roughly half-hour long ceremony.

During his remarks, Brent Layton gave a brief synopsis of the day, Sept. 8, 2009.

"At 0530 the shots rang out and the ambush started," he said. "Our brave men were trapped in that city, calling for help."

Layton said the firefight waged for seven hours and Meyer had asked his superiors for permission several times to go in and help, but was denied. He later defied orders and went in with a Humvee, helping to save the lives of many of his comrades, laying down cover fire for them to scramble to safety, and eventually retrieving the bodies of those lost. 'Doc' Layton was tending to the wounds of another injured service member when he was shot.

"There is no finer group of men and women than the Navy corpsmen," Capt. Roots stated. "They go into combat with our marines to take care of them, and they take care of them under fire."

Layton died doing what he was trained to do, and offered his own life in exchange for those of his fellow soldiers.

"We dedicate this time of respect and sorrow to those who paid the ultimate price," added Richard Windfeathers, a veteran who offered some thoughts on heroes during the program.

When he was killed in action, Layton became the 28th soldier from the Northern San Joaquin Valley area to be lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He grew up in the Riverbank-Escalon area and graduated from Vista High in Escalon. He enlisted in December 2007.