Memory of a soldier | SteamboatToday.com

Memory of a soldier

Mark Lawton's family struggles to go on without him

Autumn Phillips

Sherri Lawton lives on a dirt road about five miles outside of Hayden at the end of a long driveway. She rarely leaves except to get groceries or make a trip to Wal-Mart.

If her husband hadn’t died in Iraq last year, most people wouldn’t even know she was there.

Only the few who drove down the rural road past her house would have seen the endless line of flags and yellow ribbons she hung on her fence as a kind of prayer for the soldiers to come home safe.

“Rarely do people see me,” she said. “I just stay home and take care of the boys. Before Mark died, not one person stopped to comment on those flags.”

But on Aug. 29, when Sherri Lawton became the first Routt County widow of the war in Iraq, all eyes turned her way. More than 1,000 people watched her cry at her husband’s funeral. They sent flowers and money. They sent their condolences in the form of food and phone calls. They read her story in the newspapers and saw it on television.

She still gets the occasional phone call from a stranger who remembers she is out there and wants to make sure she is OK, but her husband died six months ago and life goes on. She and her two boys are slipping back into the rural landscape, learning how to build a life without Mark.

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For Sherri Lawton, it has been 191 agonizing days since she was left alone in this world. Her husband was scheduled to come home in November, but November came and went. A paper, computer-printed banner still hangs above the front door, “We love you Daddy. Come home soon!” The sign is starting to tear and age, but Sherri doesn’t know when she’ll be ready to take it down.

“Eventually, I’ll buy my own home, and I’ll have to pull it down,” she said. “I don’t throw anything away. I’ll probably save it for the boys.”

Mark’s clothes still hang in the closet. She had them professionally cleaned as a surprise homecoming present.

“He loved the feel of a professionally laundered shirt,” she said. “I always keep my back to that side of the closet.”

Some day, she’ll take those down, too.

She still has all the photos of Mark hanging on the walls, and she always will, she said. “I never hide with the kids about Mark.”

While his father was in Iraq, 4-year-old Dustin would walk up to strangers in the grocery store and tell them that his daddy was a “cowboy soldier, saving the nation.” Now, he tells them, “My daddy is dead.”

“They are always shocked and they say, ‘I hope that’s not true,'” Sherri said. “I don’t leave it hanging, and I never tell him to be quiet. It’s his way of grieving.”

At home, Dustin will come to his mother and ask if his daddy is dead. When she says “yes,” he says, “Cry, mama, cry.”

“Maybe he just can’t cry himself,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned from this is that everyone grieves differently.”

She knows that she is processing Mark’s death, she said, because she still cries every day, but she doesn’t cry all day. “Mark and I had a fantastic relationship. I feel like I waited all my life for him. I’ll probably grieve for Mark forever.”

Sherri was 29 years old and living in her parents’ home in Hayden when she met Mark Lawton.

“If he had the day off, we were together,” she said. “We were best friends. Mark and I lived in each other’s pockets. I can count on one hand how many times he went out with his friends without me.”

When they married, Sherri Lawton moved from the protection of her parents’ house into the care of her husband. In all senses, she was the traditional Christian wife.

She made breakfast for him in the morning, packed his lunch and made sure that dinner was ready when he got home. She stayed home with the children and never planned to work again.

“I think he was proud of me,” she said. “He was always telling me what a good wife I was.

“I never felt scared. I always knew he would take care of us.”

The day a military chaplain came to the house and told her that Mark was shot during an ambush 40 miles outside of Baghdad, Sherri Lawton fell to her knees, crying. The rest of the day is a blur in her memory, but the chaplain told her the first thing she said when she could finally speak was, “Thank God Mark was saved.”

A belief in God was the basis of their relationship.

When they first started dating, they got into his truck to go out, but he didn’t start the engine.

“I have to ask you something,” he said. “What religion are you?”

He told her later that when she said she was a Baptist, he knew she was the one for him.

Since his death, the same belief in God has helped her cope.

“God’s plan is perfect,” she said. “I’m not sure it makes it easier, but it helps me accept it. God called Mark home that day.”

She quotes a Bible verse from 2 Peter to comfort herself: “With the Lord a moment is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a moment.”

“It may take me 30 years before I go to heaven, but for Mark, that is like a second of time. He is in heaven. He is not yearning to be here.”

On May 2, 2003, President Bush announced to the world that the fighting in Iraq was over. On May 18, Mark Lawton and the 244th Engineer Battalion arrived in Iraq to rebuild the country. Mark Lawton built new water lines and roads, and on his days off, he went into the villages to repair children’s bicycles and construct new playgrounds.

He did not go to Iraq to fight, and no one thought that an engineer would be killed. Mark Lawton was the first casualty from the 244th Engineer Battalion since the Korean War.

“I think that’s why this is getting so much attention from the military,” Sherri Lawton said. “Engineers don’t get killed. They are there to rebuild.”

The only person who doubted that Mark Lawton would come home alive was Mark Lawton himself.

“He had a feeling he wouldn’t come home,” his wife said. Before he left, Mark Lawton made Sherri’s father promise that he would take care of her if he didn’t come back alive.

Sherri Lawton’s father, Louis Holloway, works on power plants for TIC and is always on the road. Since Mark’s death, he has searched for a way to work in Colorado. Sherri’s mom already has moved in with her daughter.

When Sherri Lawton thinks about the past six months, she cries for her loss, but she also thinks of all the people who have helped her. Most of them were people she had never met.

She sent out 560 handwritten thank-you notes to people such as Mike and Kathy Diemer, owners of Johnny B. Good’s Diner, who put out a collection jar for her and bought her family dinner on several occasions. She wrote a thank-you note to the Hayden Cemetery for letting her temporarily put a headstone on her husband’s grave, even though it didn’t have the right foundation, so that it wouldn’t be unmarked through the winter.

She wrote to all the people who made meals and brought over things such as toilet paper and soap and diapers.

She sent notes to all the people who wrote off debts that she owed and to the people who donated money so her two boys could go to college.

“I try to be a good Christian, but people sent me far more money than I’d send to a stranger,” she said.

Sherri Lawton continues to write letters to the soldiers from Mark’s battalion, just as she did before his death.

When they first married, Mark Lawton was still having nightmares from his time in the first Gulf War. He didn’t talk much about it, and Sherri didn’t push. The one thing he did say, that she never forgot, was that it was lonely over there and he rarely got mail.

Sherri Lawton wrote her husband every day while he was in Iraq, and she often wrote letters to the 37 soldiers deployed from Fort Carson with him.

“I was the wife of a staff sergeant, and I was trying to do my duty,” she said. “I wanted Mark to be proud of me when he came home.”

When the soldiers from Fort Carson come home this spring, Sherri Lawton will be there to meet them.

— To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com