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Draper Journal

Fallen Soldiers event creates a family bond on and off the softball field

Apr 22, 2019 01:54PM ● By Catherine Garrett

Staff Sergeant Zack Barton’s family is surrounded by the Corner Canyon High softball team at the Fallen Heroes game March 27. (Photo courtesy Josee Haycock)

By Catherine Garrett | [email protected]

The call that would forever change the family of Gary and Christi Barton of West Jordan came at 2:22 a.m. the morning of Oct. 14, 2013. Staff Sergeant Zackary Skyler Barton, stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, was gone. With no warning to family or friends, he had taken his own life after serving the United States for five years.

“It was devastating,” his mother Christi Barton said. “We were totally in shock and it was the middle of the night. We felt so helpless.”

Christi said she and her husband Gary had just been on the phone with Zack that morning for nearly two hours and had been laughing together. “He was doing exactly what he had wanted to do since he was 5 years old and he absolutely loved serving,” she said. “I even thought that he sounded happier than he had ever been.”

And just like that, the Bartons became part of a club they never dreamed would happen. They were now a Gold Star family — a distinction given to those who have lost a family member in active military service. The National Guard provides services for Gold Star families, and among the opportunities was the Fallen Heroes program that former Corner Canyon softball coach Garrett Hone and assistant Quinn Linde created in 2016 to pair up Chargers players and families of fallen soldiers, which culminated in a military appreciation game each season.

Staff Sergeant Zackary Skyler Barton served in the United States Air Force from 2008 until his death in 2013. (Photo courtesy Barton family)

It was then the Bartons, who had practically lived on baseball fields for the past 15 years themselves, again had a life-changing event: they met then-freshman softball player Josee Haycock. “Josee is an amazing girl. She excels at so many things and was actually so much like Zack with how smart she is and how accomplished she is,” Gary Barton said. “She was the perfect fit for our family.” 

Haycock said she first met the Bartons just prior to a game against Granger three years ago. “It made me play for a whole different reason — for Zack,” she said. “I remember hitting back-to-back doubles, stealing a few bags, and even making a couple of diving plays. It’s crazy how when you truly play for something greater than you, you play with more heart and soul.”

The Bartons, along with their daughter Khaia, didn’t just come to a game or two to cheer on Haycock that first season; they have attended every high school and competitive softball game she has played, including trips to St. George each year for tournaments. “We follow her all over and pretty much just stalk her,” Gary Barton said, noting that they will continue the trend with Haycock’s move to the college ranks at Salt Lake Community College.

Haycock said the Bartons’ support “has meant the world” to her. “It’s awesome to see them walking into the ballpark, or sitting behind the backstop wearing my jersey top that has SSGT Barton’s name across the back,” she said.

“We have had some social anxiety since Zack’s passing and to be able to enjoy a nice spring day watching softball has been amazing for our healing,” Christi Barton said. “This has been so important to us in helping keep Zack’s memory alive because we could never let him go. For us, we weren’t able to have any new memories with Zack, but this has almost created new memories with Zack.” 

The first homerun Haycock hit in her high school career isn’t just a memory the Bartons can recall seeing from the stands; they have the souvenir from the game. “She gave us that first homerun ball and I told her, ‘No, this is your first. You need this.’ She said, ‘No, I want you guys to have this.’ It’s still on my desk at work.”

The Bartons have also connected with Haycock’s parents and family, including her grandparents. “This has created a family between us,” Gary Barton said. “It’s been freakin’ awesome!” Haycock said she has an “amazing relationship” with the Bartons. “It’s like I have been adopted into their family in a way,” she said.

Despite the close connection the Bartons have made with Haycock, they also support the rest of the Corner Canyon softball team and frequently present them with tokens like roses and even military guardian angel pins. “We want them to know how special they all are to us,” Christi Barton said. “We love all of them and what they are doing.”

CCHS head coach Chris Opheikens appreciates the inspiration the Fallen Heroes program brings to his team. This year’s tribute game was held March 27 against Skyridge and focused on the local Survivor Outreach Services (SOS) program.

“This cause is so uplifting for both our team and the families of our soldiers,” Opheikens said. “Our girls have been reminded that there is more to life than just softball. They have been humbled to play for these men and women and their families — those who have fought and died for our freedoms. The feeling that we get when we put on a uniform with their initials on it is one of gratitude. We have built up a great appreciation for our soldiers and a lot of love for their families.”

Corner Canyon player Lexi Parker said the military game is a highlight each season for her because of the “completely different vibe” on the field. Chargers pitcher Abbi Opheikens said, “The tribute game is something that is so much bigger than softball and I’m honored to be a part of it. Being able to play for a fallen soldier has changed not only my mentality in softball, but it’s changed me as a person.”

Gary Barton said he has often asked himself how the Fallen Heroes program would have impacted his family if their player had not been Josee. “I know we still would have been amazed and grateful for the experience, but our relationship with her and the blessing she has been to us was simply meant to be.”

Haycock, who presented her own jersey to the Bartons, said, “I have never met SSGT Barton but I love him with all my heart and am so grateful for him and his family because of the ultimate sacrifice they paid for our country. This has made my experience of playing for Zack much more meaningful and personal because I have been able to see him, his kindness and his love for others through his sweet family.”