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Army Staff Sgt. Jason L. Paton, 25, Poway

September 09, 2007|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

On the day that his son's wedding invitation arrived, Robert Paton saw two Army officers walking up his driveway. He knew there would be no wedding.

His son, Staff Sgt. Jason L. Paton of Poway, Calif., was to be married Nov. 18 after returning from Iraq. But as the officers informed his father last month, Paton was among 14 soldiers killed Aug. 22 in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Multaka, Iraq, north of Baghdad.

Paton, 25, an Army Ranger, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He was buried Thursday at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery on San Diego's Point Loma.

One after another, family members described Paton as unfailingly concerned about others.

"He cared the world about other people," his father said. "He'd go out of his way to help anybody -- and that's reflected both in his personal life and his military life."

A 2000 graduate of Poway High School, Paton had completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. His second deployment to Iraq was to have ended in July but was extended as part of the troop surge ordered by President Bush.

Even so, he was three weeks from coming home when the Black Hawk helicopter experienced mechanical failure during a nighttime operation.

After his planned wedding, Paton and his fiancee, Nikki Palmer, were to move to Georgia, where he was to serve as a training officer for Army Rangers.

Palmer was a UC San Diego softball player, and Paton proposed to her at home plate after a game in March while he was home on leave.

"He was an amazing man," Palmer said. "He cared so much about everyone else."

Recalling the day when she learned that his deployment had been extended, Palmer said, "I was really upset and I cried. He said, 'I know it sucks but . . . this is what I do.' He was a really good soldier. He took his job very seriously."

Paton joined the Civil Air Patrol as a youngster, and after graduating from high school told his mother, Kim Bilbrey, that he had decided to enlist in the Army.

His version of relaxing was never sitting still, according to family and friends, who said Paton loved surfing, water skiing and riding dirt bikes in the desert.

He kept quiet, at least with his family, about his military exploits. When he was home, it was as if he had turned off a switch and never spoke about the military, his father said

"I never pried or anything," he said. "I often said, 'When you're all done with this, we'll talk politics,' but he believed in fighting for his country."

Paton's stepfather, Jim Valenzuela, recalled the time he was assigned as a substitute teacher in Paton's eighth-grade class. Valenzuela said he was spared much of the misbehavior that is the common lot of substitutes because the students had such high regard for his stepson.

"He was always trying to make life a little bit easier for anybody else," Valenzuela said.

Paton's cousin Shane Coffelt, 34, of Seattle recalled a string of memorable family reunions and trips with Paton to the desert. Despite the physical distance between them and a nine-year age difference, Coffelt said, they were almost like brothers.

Paton was "always smiling, larger than life," Coffelt said. "He was never real connected with material things. Family and friends were always more important to him."




War casualties

Total U.S. deaths*:

* In and around Iraq**: 3,748

* In and around Afghanistan***: 373

* Other locations***: 62

*Includes military and Department of Defense-employed civilian personnel killed in action and in nonhostile circumstances

**As of Friday

***As of Sept. 1

Source: Department of Defense

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