Soldier Was Dedicated to Service

Lt. Col. James J. Walton, who grew up in Rockville, knew in fourth grade that he wanted a career as a soldier.
Lt. Col. James J. Walton, who grew up in Rockville, knew in fourth grade that he wanted a career as a soldier. (Courtesy Of Department Of Defense)
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By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Lt. Col. James J. Walton and his wife, Sarah, would have celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary today.

But Walton, 41, who grew up in Rockville and had been living in Arlington County, died Saturday in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan after his vehicle struck a roadside bomb and his convoy came under fire, the Army said.

Word came as Walton's parents, four siblings and eight nieces and nephews were assembling at a Delaware beach for an annual family retreat.

"What everyone remembers about Jim is, he was larger than life," said his sister Diane Jewell, 34. "He's exactly what you'd think of when you think of a hero."

He left goodbye letters for his parents, wife, in-laws and siblings. Yesterday, the family was planning to mail notes he wrote for some of his buddies.

The Army said Walton's unit, part of the 1st Infantry Division, had been training and mentoring Afghan soldiers.

People who knew him said he believed passionately in the military's mission and the work he was doing overseas. In May, he wrote two e-mails to a New York talk radio station, one of which said that "the enemy" was "acting up" with the end of the poppy-harvesting season.

Walton knew in fourth grade that he wanted a career as a soldier, Jewell said. At St. John's College High School in the District, Walton was elected the equivalent of student body president, she said. In May 1989, after graduating from West Point, he entered the Army. Since getting married, he had served a tour in Iraq and was assigned to the Pentagon.

In the early 1980s, Walton was an altar boy for Monsignor John F. Myslinski, now the pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville. Myslinski said the family reminded him -- and not just in name -- of the fictional characters on "The Waltons," the 1970s TV show.

"They were blond, wholesome . . . and close-knit," he said.

The two men stayed in touch. The pastor blessed Walton's wedding ring and gave him a finger rosary before he left. In one of their last conversations, Walton told Myslinski he wanted to be active in the parish when he returned. Instead, Myslinski will preside over Walton's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.

There wasn't a sport Walton couldn't excel at, his family said, including springboard diving, kayaking and rock climbing. For recreation, he went for long bike rides and parachuted with friends. In 2005, he was on a team of 85 skydivers that claimed a world record for holding together an estimated 276-foot-tall formation above Florida.

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