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02-23-06, 01:48 PM
Instructor decorated for act of heroism
MCAS New River
Story by Lance Cpl. Samuel D. White

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION NEW RIVER, N.C. (Feb. 22, 2006) -- It was never unusual for a student to show up in tears to grenade pit number three. The fear of throwing one’s first grenade weighs heavier on some Marines than others, with a million questions racing through their minds.

Will I throw it over the wall far enough?

Will I keep a tight enough grip on the safety lever?

Will I screw up enough that I might endanger my life or that of someone else?

Staff Sgt. James M. Peyton had seen the scenario dozens of times before and thought nothing different this time around. To him, it was the typical nervous student who just needed to be calmed down; have her mind taken off of the Marine Corps and be reassured that she could complete the task at hand.

It would only be minutes from the time Peyton first set eyes on this student that he would be staring a live grenade in the face. Both his life and another’s rested in the sweaty, loosened grip of the student standing three feet in front of him. An entire lifetime summed up in four seconds.

“There’s no truth to the ‘life flashing before your eyes’ saying when you only have four seconds to react,” said Peyton. “By the time the safety lever has been released, you (need to) have already responded. Any delayed time and both you and the student are dead.”

On July 17, 2004, Peyton, a Marine Combat Training Battalion instructor and Stewartstown, Penn., native, saved the life of one of his students, and on Feb. 13, 2006, at Camp Devil Dog, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, he received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his quick thinking and fast reaction.

“Staff Sgt. Peyton exemplifies what a staff (noncommissioned officer) should be,” said Capt. Randall K. Jones, School of Infantry East logistics officer and former MCT Fox Company commanding officer. “He is probably the finest instructor we have and has been the benchmark by which all other combat instructors have been measured. His actions went above and beyond that of most Marines.”

Humble about the award and of the hero-like events of that morning, Peyton can still account perfectly the incident and the day that lead to receiving the prestigious medal.

“It was hot and humid that morning, typical weather for mid-July,” Peyton explained. “I saw her coming from the grenade shack and I could tell she was nervous because she got to my pit already in tears.”

Not the average appearance of every student, but nothing new to the SNCO, Peyton did the same thing he had done every time a Marine walked down upset.

“I have time to calm them down since I was always in pit three,” said Peyton. “Pit one and two throw first and I have a while in between detonations to talk to them about anything other than the Marine Corps. I’d ask where they are from, how many brothers and sisters they have, what they like to do in their free time, anything to calm them down.”

Taking the student’s mind off the situation proved difficult for Peyton, but through time and patience he calmed the junior devil dog down.

“She was mainly a blubbering mess (with her responses),” said Peyton. “I calmed her down and she stopped crying and I remember asking her, ‘Are you ready to throw?’ and she responded ‘Yes.’”

Peyton continued to carry out the procedure commands for throwing the grenade while in the pit.

“Stand,” Peyton told the student, to which she complied.

“Safety clip,” Peyton continued and she removed the safety device and repeated the order.

Giving the third to last command, Peyton told the student, “twist, pull pin,” and she refused.

“That’s when I put my hands over her hands and I tried to talk to her some more,” said Peyton. “I told her that I wasn’t going to mess around with her and that as soon as I told her to remove the safety pin, I was going to tell her to prepare to throw and she was going to throw it and it was going to get over the wall and we were all going to go on to tomorrow’s training.”

Peyton asked the Marine if she was ready to go, to which she replied, “Yes.” The veteran instructor then released his grip on the student’s hands and repeated the order, “twist, pull pin.”

The young Marine carried out the order, only to be frozen by the next command, “prepare to throw.”

“I repeated the order three times and she wouldn’t comply,” Peyton recalled. “And then she released the grip of the safety lever and the grenade started cooking off. I told her one more time ‘throw it,’ but she wouldn’t release the grenade so I grabbed it, threw it over the top of my head, grabbed her and took her for a free ride to the ground.”

Peyton shielded the student’s body until he heard the grenade detonate. Once he knew that both he and the student were safe, he got up and walked away.

“I remember that I really wanted a cigarette,” Peyton joked. “But I also remember that that was really close and maybe I should have taken a little more time with her, but she assured me three separate times that she was fine. I still ‘what if’ myself all the time. What if I would have waited? What if I would have let pit four go? What if we just would have said, ‘she can’t throw today.’?”

Peyton, a two and a half-year veteran MCT instructor and fleet infantry unit leader - 0369 - is currently an instructor trainer and has not returned to the grenade pits for several months, but he did not let the experience change his mentality as an instructor.

“I prefer to be in the pits,” Peyton explained. “I want to go back; I think it’s exciting.”

An excitement that came close to ending his own life and another’s. Peyton believes that it wasn’t his time, though, and that if God wanted him, he’d be with Him already. When Peyton’s time does come, however, he firmly believes where his soul will be sent.

“When I die I think I’m going to hell,” said Peyton. “I think I’m going there just to kill the devil and that will be my final mission in life. Then I think I’m going to go up to heaven and sit around the table with all my dead relatives and kick back and have a few beers.”

Relieved that this final mission hasn’t been carried out, the Marine’s family is proud of his accomplishments.

“Growing up, he always had a special quality about him,” said Susan Peyton, the mother of the honored Marine. “I knew, and saw, that he was going to do great things with his life and I’m very proud of him.”

Reflecting on the experience, Peyton swears that he will never forget the four seconds that almost ended his life.

“There is still too much that I have to do for it to end that way,” said Peyton. “I knew I had to save (the student’s) life, I had to see my wife again, had to see my family; I have too much left to accomplish and four seconds wasn’t going to take it all away.”