Stumbling across her grandparents' living room carpet in pink-and-white-striped pajamas, Claire Michelle Patterson reaches toward one of the piles of photographs strewn around the home and snatches up a large print.

Her pale blue eyes narrow as she absorbs the desert scene. Sitting in front of the fireplace just feet away, Frank and Sharon Patterson slouch slightly, their eyes tracking the toddler. When the room falls silent, their faces hang expressionless, betraying little more than exhaustion.

Claire scans the photo for a moment before settling on a stubble-faced grunt in full camouflage. The corners of her mouth turn up into her cherubic cheeks.

"Da-da," she gurgles, looking up in triumph. The Pattersons pause almost imperceptibly before heaping adulation on the 15-month-old.

"That's right," Sharon Patterson says. "That's Da-da." The smile quickly melts from Sharon's face, and her eyes focus off in the distance.

Claire bounces away undaunted to another stack of photos. Under blond bangs, her eyes widen once more. She calls out again: "Da-da!"

The camouflage-clad grunt is Claire's father, Sgt. Jayton Patterson.

Patterson was killed by a roadside bomb last weekend while his unit was on patrol in northern Iraq, just weeks before the 26-year-old Marine was to come home. His wife, Stephanie, was unpacking dust-laced boxes of desert souvenirs and planning a vacation in the Bahamas when a pair of Marines arrived at her door.

Raised in Southampton County just outside Wakefield, Jayton had rural roots. In a place where homes are left unlocked, where neighbors recognize each other by car and where everyone from the bank to those in the Tasty Treat knows "that Patterson boy," his death has cut deep.

Here, lost troops will never be just pictures.

"They belong to someone out there," said Pam Harrell, whose husband baptized Jayton and later performed his marriage ceremony in the same church. "And we forget that."

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Route 460 shadows the James River from Norfolk to Petersburg. It winds through peanut farms and small towns like Ivor, Waverly and Zuni. It cuts through the heart of Wakefield, where a one-mile stretch doubles as the town's business district. A single stoplight slows traffic.

Billboards urge hungry drivers to visit the renowned Virginia Diner, where roasted peanuts are one of the specialties. Under the shadow of the water tower, stores and factories hawk all things peanut -- from oils to cookbooks.

An addition atop the city-limit sign boasts that the town is home to Maralyn "Mad Dog" Hershey, one of the unsuccessful challengers on the second season of "Survivor."

Each spring, Wakefield becomes the center of Virginia's political universe, when generations of lawmakers descend on the town for the annual Shad Planking Festival to chew over bony fish and insider gossip.

During the winter, the town slumbers as some locals track the months by the changing hunting seasons. Frank Patterson was bobcat hunting a week ago Saturday when the Marines arrived in Wakefield.

A search party sprang immediately to life. CB radios crackled, state troopers cruised back roads and game wardens checked popular spots until Frank finally got word that he had to get home.

Jayton's high school basketball coach, Walter Westbrook, was chaperoning a field trip in Chincoteague that night, when one student's cell phone started ringing. After hanging up, the teenage girl turned to Westbrook and told him that Jayton would not be coming home alive.