Independence Day special for two Gold Star parents
By MELODY JAMESON
July Fourth this year – observance of the nation’s independence and the price of keeping it – has great significance this year for two parents on opposite sides of the country who did not know each other a year ago.
For them, the national holiday is both an anniversary and marker on a journey.
What they had in common last year – though neither was specifically aware of it – were their beloved, handsome, square jawed sons proudly serving the U.S. Marine Corps. Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Kenefick, a 13-year man twice named a “Marine of the Year” and U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James Layton, dedicated to the healing arts, assigned, as is the custom, to serve as a marine medic, came home on leave for the holiday.
Layton, at 22 the younger of the two, visited with his Dad, Brent, and the rest of his substantial family including five sisters, in and around Modesto, California. Kenefick, 30, suggested to his Florida-based mother, Susan Price, that they make the 20-hour drive to Amherst, N.
The two families had good reason to relish the time with their young warriors. It was no secret on either coast that the furloughs preceded postings to Afghanistan.
Two months and four days later, on September 8, 2009, “Gunny” Aaron Keneflck and “Medic” James Layton, died together in the service of their country. They were killed in a furious fire fight with Afghan insurgents in eastern Kunar Province near the Pakistan border. Reports indicate Layton was killed giving medical assistance to the mortally wounded Kenefick. They were pinned down near an isolated Afghan village, running out of ammo, waiting for air cover. An embedded U.S. newspaper reporter later described it as “a trap.” Faithful to the Marine Corps. commitment, however, their bodies were retrieved despite the pervasive danger by a 21-year-old Kentuckian, Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer.
That July 4th, 2009, holiday leave was the last time Susan Price and Brent Layton saw their sons alive.
Kenefick’s mother, Susan, back in Florida that warm September evening, was driving to a Brandon Chamber of Commerce function when she received a call from close friends. Upon arrival, they urged her, stay in the car; they wanted to meet her momentarily, they said. Susan Price drove into the parking lot and then she knew; knew with the certainty of a sledge hammer to the chest. Price, who herself served three years in the U.S. Army, recognized the two officers striding toward her car. Supportively, gently, with the infinite consideration military extend especially their own, they broke the news. Soon, literally surrounded by caring friends able to take over, she let go of reality. The ensuing hours are foggy.
In California, three time zones away, Brent Layton, too, was in a vehicle that September afternoon. His cell phone buzzed. He was needed at home, the caller said. He went home to meet another pair of casualty assistance officers. His only son was gone, they regretfully told him, killed in action. A retired law enforcement officer, municipal and county, Brent Layton had seen death close up, but not this personal. This was different; still is.
Susan Price and Brent Layton, still strangers, had just formed a terrible bond. Their sons came home one last time. They buried their children. They accepted the casket flags. They received the double Purple Hearts because both boys had sustained earlier shrapnel wounds. They grieved and cursed the fates and cried for solace and prayed for the will to keep going. They had joined the ranks of America’s Gold Star parents, ranks of thousands – parents of service people killed in defense of the country. Independently, they asked, in effect, “is this all”? Independently, they concluded “it cannot be.”
Today, Price and Layton no longer are strangers. Connected initially via the internet, they shared first grief and then determination. Two weeks ago, they met at the Little Harbor Resort near Ruskin to discuss in person how to pool their skills and create a campaign to raise a nation’s awareness. Surrounded by U.S. Air Force families from MacDill taking part in a “day at the beach,” hosted free of charge by the resort, the two parents began plotting their campaign.
Americans, they fear, have become desensitized as the longest war in the country’s history staggers on in Afghanistan. Layton relates a recent incident in California when another man, hearing of Layton’s son’s sacrifice, cursed the young medic. Punches were thrown. Layton came away feeling he had vindicated his boy; the resulting sore shoulder a reminder. Price speaks of the insensitivity of those who ask “aren’t you over it, yet?”
Young American men and women, dedicated to their country, are paying heavily every day, the two parents asserted, and their families are suffering every deprivation, including the ultimate loss. What’s called for, regardless of political persuasion, they said, is an enhanced respectfulness for the military on the front lines, heightened public awareness of the sacrifices being made by soldiers as well as their families, plus acknowledgements to those who shoulder heavy field packs over choking dust terrain in suffocating heat or bitter cold, forfeiting comforts as simple as a warm shower for weeks at a time, so that folks at home can have another day off, around the backyard grill, observing the nation’s Independence Day.
For his part, Layton recently wrapped up an effort in California that finally adds that state to the 26 in the nation which issue Gold Star license plates – the kind of campaign that involved buttonholing political figures all the way up to the governor’s office, he noted. “But, it’s a done deal,” he added with a touch of pride.
It’s that experience that Price, known in her family as “General Mom,” wants to work with a national public awareness campaign, she said. Consequently, she and Layton, during his visit, began roughing out a website and developing a plan of action aimed at creating a network with organizations sharing similar objectives. Two non-profits that they immediately tapped into are the American Ideals Foundation founded in Ruskin and the Freedom Excursions sailing expeditions for injured veterans operated by another Ruskin family.
Ultimately, they said, they envision something as elaborate as a resort retreat for returning military and their families.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Price acknowledged, “but this also is healing for us.”
“Being a Gold Star parent is not a club you want to join,” Layton said, suggesting that the campaign to elevate public appreciation of the Gold Stars — the nation’s fallen soldiers — itself honors the lives of their sons.
“The boys left a torch; we’re picking it up,” Price added.
Price and Layton said they planned to go separate ways this July 4th, 2010 – the first anniversary of their last holiday with their sons. Each would spend the holiday with family members on opposite coasts, remembering, cherishing, celebrating the lives of their offspring, Price said. They planned to continue the Gold Star awareness campaign strategizing later this month in California. It is, she added, what they must have been prepared over a lifetime to do.
Copyright 2010 Melody Jameson