Army Sgt. Kyle Dayton, 22, El Dorado Hills Infantry team leader dies in vehicle explosion

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He had a sly grin, in which he would tilt his head to the side and his ears stuck out. That was one sign that something was afoot.

Like the time he rigged a leaf blower to blast a bunch of trash on a young lady. Or the time he left a photo of himself, grinning, on his commander’s digital camera.

Everybody knows you don’t mess with your commanding officer. But Kyle Dayton’s sense of humor knew few bounds -- and people loved him anyway.

On his page, he called himself “Danger Dayton” and friends called him, among other things, a jokester, a doer, a great soldier and the most stubborn man alive.

He grew up in Tracy, Calif., and moved northeast to El Dorado Hills while in high school. Never really an academic, Dayton enjoyed shooting at the range, playing video games and mud football. He joined the Army soon after graduation in 2003. After getting to know Nicole Goodnight, a high school acquaintance for a few months, he proposed while he was home on leave from Afghanistan. They were married May 31, 2006, and a year later he was sent to Iraq.

In November, he e-mailed a friend: “life in iraq is really boring, there is really not a whole lot that goes on out here, not that i am complaining i have a son now and i would like to at least see him before i die.”

His son, Sean James Dayton, was born Aug. 22. On Dec. 3, Kyle Dayton, an infantry team leader and sergeant, was killed in an explosion in Ashwah, west of Baghdad. He was 22. Dayton’s unit had responded to a logistics convoy accident near Anbar province, west of Baghdad, and one of the vehicles unexpectedly ignited. Officials do not believe it was an attack, but the cause of the blast was under investigation.

Dayton was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C. He was posthumously awarded a Bronze Star. In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by his mother, Linda McLaurin; a brother, Brandon McLaurin; a sister, Jenny McLaurin, all of Lathrop, Calif.; and another sister, Talis Dayton of Sacramento.

“One of the things he was worried about was that when he died that he wasn’t going to have a son to carry on his name,” Dayton’s wife said. “He was really excited about being a daddy because he had a really bad feeling about this deployment.”

When Dayton learned that his son was on the way, he lobbied hard to have the boy’s middle name be Danger. His wife at first agreed, thinking it was another of his jokes, but later realized he was serious. “His justification was it would be a good pickup line when he was older, to get girls,” she said.

She said no. They didn’t speak for three days, but named their dog Danger. When a military newsletter reported that one of Dayton’s buddies had given his son the middle name Danger, Nicole knew she would get a call. “See what they did?” he told her. “They stole it! It was a good name. I told you so.”

Dayton never saw his son in person, though he did see him stand up via a webcam during a five-minute chat with his wife around Thanksgiving.

“Gosh, he’s so strong. That’s not normal, babies aren’t supposed to be so strong,” he said, his face lit up with a grin. A few days later, he sent what would be his last e-mail to his wife: “how is my little boy doing, i bet he just keeps on growing, i can’t wait to see you all. not too long now it is coming up pretty fast. it is hard to believe that i have already been gone for five and a half months, it seems like no time but forever all at the same time.”

Dayton was supposed to go on leave and visit his wife and son in Folsom, Calif., around Christmas, but it was put off to mid-January.

Nicole said that months before her husband left for Iraq, he had a bad feeling about this deployment. “He said, ‘You need to prepare yourself for the idea that you might never see me again.’ And I brushed it off because how do you do that?” she said.

These days, Nicole is caring for Sean and trying to fulfill one of Dayton’s wishes: that she find a house for Sean and her.

She said she will forever have imprinted in her mind the image from the day her husband flew off to Iraq. They had about 15 minutes together and she gave him a hug and a kiss. Standing 6 feet 2 and with his pack on his back, Dayton bent down to kiss her belly, swelling with their unborn son. “I’ll see you in a couple months,” he said, and then walked away.

“He looked back once, and he smiled at me,” Nicole said. “He had that smile on his face that he always has . . . it was a goofy smile, it was that don’t-you-dare-cry sort of smile, but his eyes looked kind of sad, and I’d never seen that before.

“I was just about to lose it, I was just about to collapse in tears . . . but it was OK, I really thought it was going to be OK. You know, I’ll always have that picture of him in my mind.”