Sherri Lawton was counting the days her husband, Staff Sgt. Mark Lawton, was serving in Iraq.
She positioned the names of each soldier in her husband's company on a wooden fence bordering the front yard of her Hayden home. Each day since he shipped off, she added a small American flag to a growing collection along the fence line, a visual reminder to all who pass of a soldier and patriot serving time away from family and friends.
She stitched a red, white and blue quilt to surprise him when he got home, and the couple's two sons, Dustin, 4, and Tanner, 1, placed a banner above the front door that reads: "We love you, Daddy. Come home soon."
Staff Sgt. Mark Anthony Evans Lawton, 41, was killed Friday when his convoy was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire less than a mile north of As Suaydat, Iraq, about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, said Capt. Curtis Carney, an Army Reserve officer and public affairs specialist.
Four others were injured in the attack, including one soldier whose leg had to be amputated.
"The boys proudly tell everyone about their 'cowboy soldier' daddy," Sherri Lawton said in a prepared statement released Sunday.
Lawton was an avid outdoorsman and devout Christian who shared his love of the outdoors and God with his family. As a golfer with a 3 handicap, Lawton had just started to teach his sons the sport, the statement read.
Lawton was born in Elkhart, Ind., and moved to Colorado at age 16. A graduate of Moffat County High School, he was an outstanding athlete whose track and field records still stand about 20 years later.
He went on to join the Army and later the Marine Corps, in which he served more than a decade, including combat in Operation Desert Storm. Upon leaving active duty, Lawton joined the Army Reserve. He was a member of the 4th Infantry Division of the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion, a reserve unit based in Grand Junction.
When Lawton learned that his unit was being deployed, he was involved in an educational program that would have allowed him to stay in the United States, but he volunteered to deploy. He wanted to share his combat experience with younger, less experienced soldiers and "make sure that each of his boys came home in one piece," the statement read.
"He was one of those kind of guys you knew you could count on," said Dr. Bill May of Craig, who spoke about Lawton at Sunday services at the First Baptist Church of Hayden, where Lawton attended. "He was a very honest man, he wouldn't let you down if you needed anything. He was a neighbor."
A date has not been set for the funeral. A memorial fund for Lawton's sons is being established, about which more information will soon be available, Carney said.
Lawton's death raised the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq to 282.