Slain medic's parents blast Army missteps in deadly ambush

Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, a Navy Corpsman, was among four Americans killed in an ambush in a rugged section of Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009.
Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Layton, a Navy Corpsman, was among four Americans killed in an ambush in a rugged section of Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2009.

RIVERBANK, Calif. — The 500-page report, two inches thick, rests on the table in Nikki Freitas' Riverbank home.

She can't bring herself to read it word for word, to anguish over every last detail of how her son, 22-year-old Navy Petty Officer James Layton, died in an ambush last September in Afghanistan's Ganjgal Valley.

Maybe some day perhaps, but not now. Too much painful information. The words in it cannot bring her son back to life, back home to Riverbank and back into a loving mother's embrace.

Besides, a general came to her home three weeks ago to confirm what she and Brent Layton — her ex-husband and James' father — already knew:

Their son, three Marines and an Army sergeant ultimately died because the upper command made a series of deadly decisions as exposed by McClatchy reporter Jonathan Landay, who was on the ground with James Layton and his unit when the ambush occurred.

And while Layton's family members were initially told by some military officials to disregard Landay's published accounts, Marine Brig. Gen. James Laster set the record straight.

"The general told us personally that Jonathan's reporting was right on the money," Brent Layton said. "They flat came out and said, 'We screwed up.' "

The report — which Brent Layton is in the process of reading thoroughly — detailed virtually everything that happened in the Sept. 8 ambush. It tells how James Layton was shot by insurgents who wore flak jackets, Afghanistan army gear and carried recoilless rifles — as he tended to a wounded soldier.

"They were well-equipped and well-placed," Brent Layton said.

James was shot in the right eye from a distance of about 30 feet, and died instantly.

"It's very emotional to read it," Brent Layton said. "It puts it in terms of minute by minute, step by step."

"Second by second," added Gilbert Freitas, Nikki's husband and James' stepfather.

"Stuff you don't want to know and at the same time, things you need to know," Brent Layton said. "It's like a bad movie, and we're in the middle of it. It really rehashes that day."

The report also explains how leaders of the operation failed to provide artillery and air support. It reveals pure chaos in the communications between the commanders in the operations center and those in the field, blaming two unnamed majors for many of the breakdowns.

The bottom line, Brent Layton said, is that the military's upper command completely botched the operation.

"Pencil pushers calling a war from behind a desk," he said. "We grieve as parents, knowing things could have been prevented. It's sickening. It's a circus. It shouldn't be that way."

But that doesn't detract from anything James Layton or the others did on the ground, he said.

"These men died bravely," Brent Layton said. "We need to remember these men are heroes. That's what it needs to be about. They did what they were supposed to do. The guys upstairs did not. I have 100 percent confidence in the Marines, Army and Navy people on the ground. I will never have confidence in the military's upper commands again."

Even so, Layton's family members say they are fortunate to have an accurate accounting of how he died. They credit Landay's reporting for forcing the military to tell the truth — unlike the lies and misinformation former NFL player Pat Tillman's family endured when the Army tried to cover up the fact he had been killed by friendly fire.

Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, signed Tillman's Silver Star citation a day before he sent a memo giving some senior government officials a heads-up that friendly fire might have killed the former Arizona Cardinals safety.

Not this time, Gilbert Freitas said.

"Because that reporter was out there," he said, "they could not embellish it or say anything false."

The family hopes the deaths of James and the others will force the military brass to put measures in place to prevent others on the ground from being sacrificed by ineptitude.

Just as she cannot bear to read the 500-page report, Nikki Freitas no longer reads newspaper accounts or watches reports of the war on TV.

She prefers to remember the loving son who joined the Navy to become a medic, to aid wounded Marines on the ground, and who wanted to go to Afghanistan.

"He said Afghanistan was beautiful — that if you could find the garden of Eden, that's where it would have been," she said. "The mountains, the different landscapes. He was so amazed by it.

His death left a hole in her heart no report can fill. "He's my son," Nikki Freitas said. "That’s how I look at him."

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