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.
The son of Brent Layton of Escalon and Nikki Freitas of Riverbank, James Ray ‘Doc’ Layton will be among those soldiers remembered for giving the ultimate sacrifice during ceremonies in the local area this Memorial Day.
Freitas 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, sharing an embrace with Pastor Mike Dillman. “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 in Manteca 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 one of those featured on the traveling tribute wall.
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 (Vista High School graduate) and his ties to Riverbank and the surrounding region was inconsequential to his selection, Pastor 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 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 said she is ready to celebrate her son’s life and participate in the Welcome Home Heroes program.
“It’s taken me a long time,” she said, “but I’d like to be more involved.”
Recognition for members of Layton’s family also came in Escalon on Friday night, with a remembrance of the young soldier’s service and sacrifice noted at the annual Fire Department Appreciation Dinner. Layton’s aunt and grandmother attended the dinner and accepted the honor on his behalf.
The Memorial Day celebration in Manteca will feature a 5-kilometer race, a car raffle and car show. On Friday, volunteers will place crosses in the ground as yet another tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in combat.
Locally, the Escalon American Legion Post will host their traditional Memorial Day ceremony at Burwood Cemetery on River Road in Escalon, with an 11 a.m. start time for the service on Monday, May 27. Graves of service members will be decorated with a small American flag, there will be a guest speaker and a short program for the service, with all invited to attend.
Times editor Marg Jackson contributed to this report.