U.S. Navy hospital corpsman James Layton headed out before dawn with U.S. and Afghan forces on an assignment to a remote village in eastern Afghanistan.
Their mission was to meet the village elders of Ganjgal in Kunar province and work to 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 is bounded on three sides by mountains. As daylight broke, they heard shots.
It was a trap.
From the slopes of the mountains, gunfire and grenades rained on about 80 Afghan soldiers and a dozen U.S. troops. They took cover and radioed for help, but helicopter support would not arrive for 80 minutes.
At one point, a Marine, 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, was struck by gunfire. Layton, 22, rushed from his sheltered position with his first aid kit to help the wounded man.
“James had left his cover to go help Mike,” said his father, Brent Layton. “He was killed trying to save Mike.” Johnson also died in the attack.
The corpsman’s aunt, Kym Layton, said she had always “thought James to be the kind of kid to do the right thing.”
She added: “We never know how far we would go for someone else, and he went all the way.”
Layton’s body was found slumped over Johnson’s. Bandage wrappings were scattered around their bodies, according to Jonathan Landay, a McClatchy Newspapers reporter who was embedded with the attacked unit.
“This guy died a hero,” said Cpl. Dakota Meyer, the Marine who retrieved Layton’s body.
Two other Marines died in the attack, as did eight Afghan troops and an interpreter; a U.S. Army sergeant was also fatally wounded, according to Landay’s report.
Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton died Sept. 8, 2009, less than two months into his first tour of Afghanistan.
Layton was born in Livermore in Northern California and grew up in Riverbank and Escalon, towns about 10 miles north of Modesto.
He was the eldest son of Brent Layton and Carlta Freitas. He helped with his siblings and began working as a teenager, first cleaning RVs, then picking up jobs at a pizzeria and other restaurants, sometimes walking two or three miles to get there.
“If James was going to do something, you knew he’d do it,” his father said.
He also loved playing the guitar and dreamed of opening a music studio.
Layton graduated from Vista High School in Escalon in 2005 and enlisted in 2007. He was inspired by his father’s stepfather, a Navy air traffic controller whose work took him to Alaska, Guam and Hawaii.
His father said Layton found the missions in Afghanistan challenging but liked the job. “The harder a mission was, the more he liked it,” his father said.
Landay, McClatchy’s senior national security and intelligence correspondent, said he spoke with Layton at dinner the night before the fatal mission.
“I do remember being impressed by his sharpness,” Landay said. “He seemed like he was really dedicated to his job.”
Two days before his death, Layton was patrolling a base when a rocket-propelled grenade fatally struck an Afghan soldier standing near him. Shrapnel flew into Layton’s arms and legs, but he chose to remain on duty, his father said.
His father said he blames military commanders for approving the Ganjgal mission without making sure help could be called in quickly. He said more caution should have been taken in entering a valley where Landay reported that a local saying is “It’s up to you to come into the valley, but it’s up to us to let you out.”
A joint Army and Marine Corps investigation into the attack faulted commanders at the nearby U.S. base, Forward Operating Base Joyce, for “failure to monitor a rapidly degenerating tactical situation” and not providing the troops firepower and helicopter aid when they needed it, according to a document McClatchy Newspapers obtained and published on its website.
The probe also revealed “a palpable air of complacency,” according to the report, because a similar mission five days earlier had provoked only light gunfire.
Senior leaders were absent from the base’s tactical operations center as the ambush was underway, the report said. An official admitted his failure to monitor the communications system the troops used to call for help, instead relying on junior enlisted soldiers to pass him information.
In addition to his parents, Layton is survived by his brothers Jonathan, Jesse, Brandon and Sage Layton; sister Jordan Layton; stepfather Gilbert Freitas; stepsister Andrea Freitas; and stepbrother Jason Freitas.
Layton received a Purple Heart and a Gold Star in lieu of a second Purple Heart for injuries he sustained Sept. 6 and 8. He was buried at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon.