Jayton Patterson: What Might Have Been
On January 15, 2005, as Bluefield College alumnus Sgt. Jayton Patterson led his Marines down a village lane in Babil Province, south of Baghdad, he halted them. Something didn't look right. Ordering them to stay put, he moved out. It would be his last command.
September 1, 2009
Alumnus Jayton Patterson: What Might Have Been (September 2009)
Original article by Jim White, editor of the Religious Herald.
Only 10 hours earlier he was talking with his parents on the phone -- just the fourth call he could arrange in the seven months he had served in Iraq. He would be home at the end of the month, he told them. In fact, he had already mailed his personal effects to Stephanie, his wife. They should be arriving any day. He was full of hope.
His father, Frank, will never forget the conversation. "He told us he loved us and that he would be home soon. 'Daddy,' he said, 'we're doing some good things over here for these people.' We had no way of knowing it would be the last time we spoke with him."
Doing good things for others came naturally for Jayton. He grew up in Millfield Baptist Church in Ivor, Virginia, where his dad is a deacon and where his mom, Sharon, works with the youth. Jayton was saved in his early teens and took his relationship with the Lord very seriously. He filled the pulpit on youth Sundays, and in his 11th grade year at Tidewater Academy in Wakefield, Virginia, he started a Bible club. This earned him the nickname "Bible boy."
After high school in 1996, Jayton came to Bluefield College, where he played varsity baseball and studied for the ministry. He would spend only a year-and-a-half at BC, because in his words he wasn't "mature enough to be a minister."
He decided he needed direction and discipline, so he enlisted in the Marine Corps, but shortly before leaving for boot camp he met the girl who would eventually become his wife. Stephanie, a member of Wakefield Baptist Church, remembers that they hit it off so well that Jayton kept putting off telling her that he would be leaving.
"He never got around to telling me that he was leaving for the Marine Corps until the day before he left," she remembers fondly. Then, dreamily, she adds, "That was Jayton."
Demonstrating himself to be, in the lingo of the Corps, "AJ squared away," Jayton was ultimately assigned to the White House to do presidential guard duty. He accompanied President George W. Bush to ground zero in New York City on his first visit after 9/11 and decided that he wanted to do everything he could to spare his countrymen that kind of horror ever again.
He went to Iraq to fight the war on terror. But, duty in Iraq had not been what he expected it to be. In a letter home he wrote, "I never thought coming here could be so violent. I thought I would be just standing guard and helping people. It is totally opposite. I have lost 12 guys -- mostly wounded, but some dead. Holding your friend's crushed skull in your hands makes you a different person. Blood, after a while, has a certain smell that makes your stomach turn in knots. Perhaps all of this will change me. I don't know if it will be for the good or the bad. I can't wash my thoughts of the dramatic deaths I have experienced. I received a medal today for heroism in the face of hostile fire. I would give that medal back in a second to see my fallen buddies again for a minute."
As Sgt. Patterson's Marines watched, he approached the area of suspicion with caution. His instincts had served his men and him well and more than once had kept them alive. But, on this occasion there was no way to avoid the threat. And, he would not send somebody else to check it out. But, the Marines were not the only ones watching. A pair of eyes peered coldly from beneath a turban. An improvised explosive device was detonated and an explosion...
That morning, Stephanie received the box Jayton sent, and upon opening it, she found two disposable cameras with pictures to be developed. She immediately called Sharon to say the box had arrived. It was tangible evidence that soon Jayton would be home with Stephanie and their baby girl, Claire.
Twenty minutes later, as her brother drove her to get the pictures developed, he got a call. "We're going back home," he announced to Stephanie and turned the car around. When they arrived, Stephanie saw a white van with government license plates. "Then I saw the Marines, and I knew. I vaguely remember a Marine carrying me into the house."
Meanwhile, at Jayton's parents' home Marines were also visiting. "When I looked out the window and saw those Marines coming toward the house, I just knew what had happened," explained Sharon. "I couldn't even go to the door. Mattie [Jayton's sister] let them in." Just as Sharon had feared, the Marines, as compassionately as they could, shared the tragic news that Jayton had been killed, probably instantly, by a powerful explosion.
The next day, Stephanie's brother delivered two letters that had been entrusted to his care -- one to Stephanie and one to Frank.
Well, Dad, if you are reading this you know I have gone to a better place. I guess it was just meant to be. Please look out for Stephanie and Claire. They are surrounded by a lot of family and love, and they should be good. You have been a great Dad, and I couldn't have asked for anything better. I think I have grown up to be a pretty good son, too. You have made leaps and bounds in your spirituality. I am very proud of you. I just want you to know that I loved you, Mom, Hunter and Mattie very much.
Life is not the same for the Patterson family these days. But, in some sense it is. "We're still strong in our faith," Frank says. "We work as youth leaders in the church, carrying on Jayton's ministry."
In addition, Mattie just graduated from William & Mary University in May and is off to the Philippines to attend the Baptist Theological Seminary -- a sure sign of Jayton's influence. Stephanie went back to school to earn a college degree -- something Jayton always wanted her to do -- and now she's moving to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, to begin work for the Marines. And, little Claire just finished pre-school and will start kindergarten in the fall.
But, while life goes on, there is no doubt that the family still misses Jayton and feels a sense of loss not having him here. In addition to the loss his family feels, the Kingdom of Christ also misses him. Was Jayton called to preach? Who can know for sure, but the One who calls? If not a pastor, a good and godly layman, a deacon like his father, or like his mother a minister to youth. Like his other family, his Bluefield College family will always wonder what might have been.
A stanza of the Marines' Hymn asserts, "If the Army or the Navy ever look on heaven's scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by United States Marines." Pushing past the patriotic verve and military machismo, Sgt. Jayton Patterson surely is at home there in the service of Christ.