Sometime on the night before Thanksgiving, probably as we all were sleeping, an American Navy specialist in explosive ordnance disposal was killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded about 35 miles north of Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold in Syria.
His was the first American military death in Syria, described later to an ISIS device.
Thanksgiving dawned seven hours later on the East Coast. At home in Virginia, his wife and two young children probably were sleeping.
That morning, sometime after 5 a.m. if military protocol was followed, a Navy officer and chaplain drove to the family home and knocked on the door. In such cases, the spouse is the first to be notified.
Then, I surmise, the dead sailor’s mother and father, who apparently live nearby, received the news.
I didn’t know this sailor or his family. They have asked for privacy, and I respect that.
But I am comfortable saying that while the rest of us were roasting turkeys and baking pies, one American family faced the worst news of its life.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott Dayton, 42, enlisted in the Navy in February 1993, most likely within months of his high school graduation.
Many young men are eager to join something bigger than themselves, and Dayton must have been one of them. In the Navy, he fulfilled that ambition with distinction.
After years of service as a surface warfare sailor, he joined an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in 2002. Defusing explosive devices is a tough, tough job. It requires understanding of igniters, timers, wiring and all manner of combustible material. It requires logic, curiosity, broad and specific knowledge, and a steady personality.
Senior Chief Dayton seems to have had the right stuff. By the time he died, he had earned a Bronze Star and 17 other commendation medals. He had served twice in Iraq. His rank was two levels below that of the top enlisted officer of the Navy.
The commander of his unit called him a “highly regarded member of the EOD community” and added, “His legacy will continue in the lives of those who knew him, especially those he trained.”
Ever since the 2003 start of the Iraq War, I have read profiles of American military dead and thought this: We cannot afford the loss of fine people like these.
We largely have abandoned Syria and Iraq in recent years, and both countries are consumed with partisan fighting. (A Navy SEAL and a Marine sergeant were killed in Iraq last spring.) Apparently we have been sending squads of technical experts to both countries for some time.
In Syria, at least 500,000 Syrians have died, and at least half the remaining population has been displaced from their homes in recent years.
If the U.S. wanted to join the Syrian fight, it missed its opportunity years ago. Since then, the battle has come to involve many groups: the forces of its strongman, Bashar Assad; Russian and Iranian forces; various internal splinter groups opposed to Assad; Kurds seeking a homeland independent of Turkey, Iraq and Syria; and ISIS.
Senior Chief Dayton was sent to Syria as part of a 300-member contingent of military experts to assist Kurdish and anti-Assad fighters opposing ISIS. He had devoted his life to our defense. He understood the risks of his work and that part of the world. He was part of a noble, admirable tradition.
After his death the secretary of defense expressed regret “that one of our brave service members has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL.”
A rear admiral said Dayton “made the ultimate sacrifice on a day we set aside time to give thanks for our freedom and to recognize the men and women who defend that right.”
I grieve for the suffering of the Syrian people, but I fear that this good man’s loss has not made them or us any safer.
Last week, hundreds of people waving American flags lined a street in Virginia Beach as his family left for Dover Air Force Base, Del., to meet the plane carrying Senior Chief Dayton’s body home.
If you have a couple handkerchiefs, you can read a description of how our dead service members are prepared for their final rest in this New York Times 2013 story.