Body of ‘cowboy soldier’ returns home to rest
'We lost a great soldier, and his family lost a great man'
It was hard to tell if 4-year-old Dustin Lawton understood what was happening Friday. He stood on his toes with his hands curled over the edge of the coffin looking down at the body of his father, Staff Sgt. Mark Lawton.
Since May 18, when his dad left for Iraq, Dustin told anyone who would listen that his daddy was a “cowboy soldier, saving the nation.” In his nighttime prayers he always added, “keep safe, Daddy,” before saying “Amen.”
But on Friday, he didn’t say a word as he looked at a picture of his father on the cover of a bulletin given to attendees of Friday’s funeral. In the photograph, Mark Lawton was in desert Army fatigues. In the coffin, his head was shaved and he was in a freshly pressed, dress uniform.
Dustin placed a copy of the bulletin on his father’s chest as hundreds of mourners in the Routt County Fairgrounds Pavilion watched. Dustin scanned the room, creating a memory that he would sort for the rest of his life.
The room, which usually is used to exhibit rabbits and baked goods during the fair, was packed with veterans, Lawton’s extended family and others from the area who came to pay their respects to the 41-year-old soldier killed last week while fighting in Iraq.
Lawton, a reservist with the 244th Engineer Battalion, was traveling with a small convoy of soldiers Aug. 29 near As Suaydat, about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. His convoy was ambushed, and Lawton died almost immediately when a bullet passed through the windshield of his vehicle, Col. James Youker said.
Lawton was the sole fatality –14 soldiers survived.
It was Lawton’s second time at war. He was a Persian Gulf War veteran and volunteered to be deployed to Iraq, despite the fact that he had a wife and two children at home — Dustin and 1-year-old son, Tanner.
“He was anxious to share his experience when other soldiers were called to duty,” said Lawton’s commanding officer, Maj. Jim Collins. “Sgt. Lawton was one of my soldiers. We lost a great soldier, and his family lost a great man.
“Behind every great soldier there is a great family. The families say that they do not enlist (with their loved one), but they do.”
Lawton’s wife, Sherri Lawton, sobbed throughout the service. Two soldiers helped her down the aisle toward the front row and her husband’s body.
Sherri and Mark Lawton were married Sept. 12, 1998, in Hayden.
She was too shaken to speak at the funeral, so she asked her father, Louis Holloway, to read a letter she had written.
“Mark died on Aug. 29, 14 days before our fifth wedding anniversary,” Holloway read through tears. “That was the day my world stopped spinning. Mark was my best friend.
“Mark never went anywhere without kissing me goodbye and telling me he loved me.”
The couple corresponded through slow-traveling letters and occasional phone calls, she wrote. She heard from her husband five days before he died.
“As sad and lonely as we were, he was very proud to be serving his country,” she wrote. “When he put on his uniform, he stood straighter and spoke crisper. He always had his boots polished and his uniform pressed.”
Mark Lawton was a good daddy, she wrote. Even though Tanner was only 9 months old when his father left for Iraq, “(Mark) was determined to teach his boys everything he knew. In time and with help, my boys will learn through me to know their daddy and about his sacrifice.”
Holloway’s sobs kept him from reading any further, and the Rev. John Page took his place at the podium.
The rest of the letter thanked the community for its support and for “helping me say goodbye to the greatest love of my life.”
Page served as the pastor for four years at the First Baptist Church in Hayden before moving to a pastorship in Cheyenne, Wyo.
He was close to the couple and officiated their marriage. He remembered their rainy ceremony.
“God put a seal on their marriage with a clap of thunder,” he said. He was there when their sons were born and he was there when Mark Lawton received his orders for deployment.
“Mark took me aside and asked me, ‘If I don’t make it back, please do my service,'” Page said. “He told me to tell them about Jesus.”
The Lawton family is deeply religious. For the funeral, Sherri Lawton gave Page her husband’s dog-eared and highlighted Bible.
“Let Mark Lawton’s last words to us be a verse of highlighted scripture from his Bible,” Page said. He read John 3:16.
The funeral ended with a long procession past the coffin. Men held their cowboy hats respectfully in hand, and veterans and soldiers stopped to salute the body of the fallen soldier.
“(Mark’s death) was not in vain,” Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Fadel said. “Lawton played an important part in our mission. I hope I can answer the question in your hearts of why (this happened).
“There are many tears at this funeral, but the Army is also saddened by this loss. There are tears falling in a country far away from here.”
Lawton was born in Indiana, and moved to Northwest Colorado as a teenager. He was an athlete at Moffat County High School and first enlisted in the Army in 1985. He and Sherri met six years ago and were married soon after. They made their home in Hayden, where Lawton worked as a heavy equipment operator for ColoWyo Coal Co.
Lawton’s unit, based in Grand Junction, was activated in February and was sent to Iraq on May 18.
During Friday’s services, Lawton was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat and the Bronze Star “for his sacrifice in the liberation of Iraq.”
He was buried at the edge of the Hayden Cemetery — mountains in the distance, rolling hay fields all around and his community nearby.
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Time seemed to stop for Matthew Engle for a few seconds after he heard crunching metal last week while he was in downtown Steamboat Springs.