ELYRIA — The gray sweatshirt reads “USAF Mom,” and it has always been Jennifer Simmons’ favorite go-to piece of comfort clothing.
She picked it up in San Antonio in 2009, on the same day her oldest son, Jason L. Valatka, graduated from basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. It was like she watched her little boy become a man right before her eyes that day and needed a memento to mark the occasion.
But earlier this month, that same sweatshirt became a symbol of something she lost.
Valatka, 21, a senior airman stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base in Misawa, Japan, died Oct. 16 after an accident in his barracks. Simmons said she was told her son slipped while attempting to get into the bathtub and hit his head. Roughly a year earlier, he had shattered his tibia bone and torn his Achilles tendon, and Simmons said his commander believes he may have just lost his balance.
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On Tuesday, as the heartbroken mother recounted the story she sobbed, sometimes uncontrollably. She said she has felt a myriad of emotions since learning her son — a momma’s boy by her description — died in such a crazy, freak accident.
“I just thought he was safe. He was supposed to be safe,” Simmons said. She said the words in a way that showed she has uttered them countless times in the past week.
“I sure didn’t expect him to be in any harm, and especially not having an accident like this,” she said.
On this day, Simmons wore that comfy sweatshirt.
She hasn’t been able to look at it for a week, but Tuesday — gloomy and overcast — seemed like the right day to pull it on.
“This is what I would wear,” she said, tugging on the bottom of the sweatshirt. “On a normal day, I would put this on and be happy to wear it.”
“You look great in it, Jennifer,” said Alex Valatka, Valatka’s adopted father.
Inside Alex Valatka’s University Drive home, photos of Valatka — in his dress blues and playing around with family — are prominently displayed. On the table sits a cell phone that contains a 3-second voicemail where Valatka quickly and simply says, “Hey, Dad. It’s me.” It was from a missed call a few days before he died.
Simmons and Alex Valatka can’t stop listening to it.
If it takes a village to raise a child, then Valatka had his very own hamlet in Lorain County. He had four parents — biological mom, Simmons; biological father, Jason Hendricks Sr.; adopted father, Alex Valatka and stepmother, Yvonne Hendricks — as well several sets of grandparents, three brothers and countless other relatives.
Basically, Valatka was not hurting for anyone to love him. Those who will mourn him will be just as numerous.
“He was a family man before he had a family of his own,” Hendricks said. “He had so many homes he could go to, so many people he could turn to. His mother and I were not always the most perfect parents, but he kept us grounded because we knew no matter what, Jason was the most important thing.”
Hendricks said two military officials showed up at his door at 2 a.m. Oct. 17 and he knew it was to say his son had died. He is an ex-Marine and knew the reason behind the visit before they said a word.
“My son lived his life to prove me wrong,” Hendricks said. “The No. 1 goal in his life was to be a better man than me. I raised him like that and he proved me right in his 21 years on this Earth.”
To get an accurate description of who Valatka was as a man, son, brother and fiance — he fell in love with a Japanese woman while overseas and proposed several months ago — it’s best to turn to all of his parents. They have different stories of how Valatka touched their lives that fit together like a puzzle.
Simmons said her son was a daredevil. The kind of kid who jumped from roof to roof in the neighborhood in such a way frantic neighbors would call her at work because he was sitting on the roof. Still, he knew to keep in touch with Simmons weekly through Skype. Although, a lot of the time he took the computer into a bathroom so Simmons could not chide him about his messy bedroom.
Hendricks said his son was a defender who beat up the bullies. In second grade, he got his first black eye when he got into a fight with a fourth-grader who was picking on a kindergartner.
Alex Valatka said there wasn’t a set of house keys Valatka would not lose. He made dozens over the years for his son. He loved to cook and mess around on the grill.
Yvonne Hendricks said Valatka was kind and had a big heart. When her youngest son, Dakota, was 1, he was diagnosed with leukemia and his big brother made sure he was always by his side.
Valatka is a 2009 graduate of Elyria High School and joined the Air Force soon after. It seemed to be the perfect fit for him, his family said.
“Oh, man. He had to leave and get out of here,” his mother said. “He wanted to see the world.”
His placement in Japan was his first trip outside the country.
“He found himself in the military,” Alex Valatka said. “He didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but when he joined the military he found his calling.”
He also found the love of his life. Valatka met Yumi Watanabe the past New Year’s Eve — their first date was at a McDonald’s — and by April they were engaged. He wanted to marry her much earlier this year, but was still waiting on military approval.
Watanabe plans to join Valatka’s family for his funeral here. She will arrive Thursday; one day after his body is to arrive.
“She would have been his wife and we are treating her like that,” Simmons said. “We fully respect my son’s decision to want to spend the rest of his life with Yumi.”
Valatka is being escorted home by his best friend in the Air Force, who has promised the family he will stay by his friend’s side until he is buried. The funeral will be 10 a.m. Saturday.
Valatka will be buried at Brookdale Cemetery next to Sgt. Daniel Shepherd, Lorain County’s first casualty in the Iraq War.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.