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Running With Purpose Local Duo Entering Marine Corps Marathon
It was almost a year ago when the unthinkable happened ... the loss of one of the region's own overseas. Navy medical corpsman James 'Doc' Layton, a Petty Officer Third Class, was killed while tending to the wounds of an injured Marine in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border. The 22-year-old medic died Sept. 8, 2009. He was a graduate of Vista High School in Escalon and had grown up in the Escalon and Riverbank areas.

Now, in his honor and in recognition of the sacrifice of all service men and women, local runners Mike Pitassi and Gregg Churchill of Escalon are in training for the Marine Corps Marathon at the end of October. Both men are currently seeking donations in hopes of raising money for the Semper Fi Foundation.

For Pitassi, whose own son was also involved in a military incident around the same time as James Layton, the run has an even more personal note. While his son, a Navy SEAL corpsman, was safe, the son of friend Brent Layton paid the ultimate price.

"For a long time I couldn't even look Brent in the eye," Pitassi admitted, noting that as fathers with sons in the military, the two share that bond but Layton's loss is something Pitassi cannot even begin to comprehend.

"Here they were, two boys from the same area of California, thousands of miles away (from home) and just a few miles apart ... "

One lived through what easily could have been a deadly attack; the other was killed in the line of duty. James 'Doc' Layton was the son of Brent Layton and Nikki Freitas. He was buried in a ceremony with full military honors at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon last Sept. 17.

Pitassi said there is a special sense in preparing for this marathon.

"I've never run for any other purpose other than to try to go faster," he said of working to reduce his times from race to race.

Now, the goal is much bigger - honoring those lost in service to this country and raising $5,000 to give to the Semper Fi Foundation.

Brent Layton, for his part, said the fact that Pitassi and Churchill are running in memory of his son means a great deal.

"I'm honored my friends would run, not to honor just James, but all our Marines, all our veterans," Layton said.

The former law enforcement officer has become an activist for veterans' issues and has made many trips to Sacramento, as well as the local offices of state and federal legislators. He has also been back to Washington, DC and has another trip to the East Coast planned for the fall, keeping tabs on several bills to benefit veterans.

"Ninety-nine percent of the injuries aren't seen," Layton explained, noting that TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, may not be visible like the loss of an arm or a leg, but they are prevalent among vets returning from overseas.

"Not only do these kids deserve the support, but the families as well," Pitassi added.

On the day that his own son was involved in an incident in Afghanistan, Pitassi said a comrade his oldest son Ben was with was severely injured, losing both legs and suffering internal injuries.

"His sister is an RN, she quit her job and moved to Bethesda (Maryland) to live with him," Pitassi said of the sacrifices entire families make to support their soldier. "His mother took a three-month leave of absence when he was going through the worst of it."

For James Layton, for Ben Pitassi, for countless others who put on the uniform each day and intentionally step into harm's way to safeguard the safety of others, Mike Pitassi and Gregg Churchill will run.

"This will be my first marathon," Churchill shared. "I'm nervous, yes, but a lot of it's psychological."

If he can get past that barrier, Churchill is confident he can handle the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

"It's a piece of cake, I just have to keep up with Mike," he said.

The two have been running together for about a year and are also doing some additional cross training to prepare for the Oct. 31 marathon. Both have had to deal with some minor injury setbacks, but nothing they don't expect to overcome.

"It starts at Arlington, Virginia and runs to the Capitol, we also run along the Potomac and it ends up at the Marine Corps Memorial," Pitassi said of the marathon route.

It's also a tough run to get into ... Pitassi said the available spots in the run filled quickly. He and wife Karen hope to spend a few days in Washington DC and the surrounding area just prior to the event.

"I'm thinking about going to visit my congressman while I'm there," Pitassi said. "There's a lot of good will toward families in the service but when it comes down to it, they (legislators) need to put some rubber on the road and make it (support) real, not just talk."

By raising money for the Semper Fi Foundation, Churchill and Pitassi hope to help the organization pay for basic needs of service members coming back from overseas. Especially those that are dealing with injuries, foundations like Semper Fi help "pick up the slack" to cover rent and basic living expenses, said Pitassi.

Both have prepared letters seeking support for the cause, with Pitassi doing the majority of his via email and Churchill using a combination of email and through-the-mail letters. Each also has a donation form available, which they will send to prospective donors. Contact Pitassi at 838-7264 or 595-0552, or Churchill at 838-2714 for additional information.

Churchill is a project manager with a construction company, Pitassi is the Escalon Community Ambulance chief and both are finding time to fit in their training with coach Danny Lehr.

"These are intense, short workouts, we usually don't go more than 20 minutes," Churchill said of the power sessions.

"It feels like two hours," Pitassi added. "I used to put in 50 to 70 miles running a week, now I maybe do 10 to 15 miles but the workouts are way more intense, we're even doing two-a-days."

Some 32,000 runners are expected at the Marine Corps Marathon and both Pitassi and Churchill said they aren't looking at setting any kind of time goal ... they just want to finish and raise some money for a good cause.

"Within three hours of sending out my letter (via email) I had $800," Pitassi said. "And this wasn't just family, it was even people I didn't know."

Churchill said he randomly set a goal of $800 but feels he can aim a little higher than that now.

"Seeing the response, I think people want to do what they can," Churchill said.

Layton said he will try to work his upcoming East coast trip around the marathon.

"I'm just proud of them," he said of Pitassi and Churchill. "I hope to be there ... it would be something to see."