TAMPA — Every morning, Sarah Sitton opens her eyes and remembers. She remembers the knock on the door and the moment of fear. She remembers her 9-month-old son, Brodey, who never got to play catch with his dad. And she remembers the love of her life: a soldier who died in Afghanistan a month before he was scheduled to return home.
"Every day it's a new struggle and it's something new to live with," Sarah, 21, said at a news conference Wednesday at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's Operations Center in Ybor City, where her mother works. "And every morning it starts all over again."
Staff Sgt. Matthew Steven Sitton, 26, died Aug. 2 after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The Indian Rocks Christian School graduate was deployed on his third tour with the Army. He was a true patriot who was born to be a soldier, Sarah said. The Army Ranger loved to serve. To protect. To make a better world for his family and his country.
"It's what he loved and what he wanted to do," Sarah said. "Because I know that, I can't be angry at the military or anything else. It's what he chose to do and he loved us enough to do it."
Sarah and Matt met at a church camp in Gainesville in 2007. He was a military man, weeks away from his first deployment. She was a 17-year-old girl, looking for a soldier to whom she could send packages and write letters. They spent the next two years sharing their lives and thoughts with each other.
"We knew we were right for each from the start," Sarah said. "When all you do is talk to someone for a year or two years and you don't ever do anything else but just talk to them about everything that's in their heart, you just grow so close to each other."
In 2009 on Independence Day — Sarah's favorite holiday — they exchanged wedding vows. They would spend most of their anniversaries apart. Matt often was on missions during birthdays and holidays, but that's something Sarah knew was part of being an Army wife.
"It never gets any easier over there," said Sarah, who lives in Riverview. "It's hard to watch them when you love them so much and their worlds keep falling apart and every soldier doesn't come home with them."
Sarah had reserved the trailers and packed the boxes to drive up to North Carolina for Matt's return in September. She had just gotten back from the dry cleaners when the notification officers showed up at her door.
"Everything I had in life, every future plan I ever had was based around him, so when I heard that news, everything stopped," Sarah said. "People ask me what I'm going to do next week, and I don't know. I really don't even know what's happening tomorrow. For now, it's just getting by each day."
She tries to preserve Matt the best she can. His dog tags hang around her neck. She still has their last text messages saved on her phone. And she has Brodey.
"He's my little piece of Matt that's left," she said, holding Brodey, who played with a toy as she spoke. "You can tell he wants everyone to laugh just like his dad did. He is already turning out so much like his dad."
In their last Skype call, Matt made plans to take Brodey to the lake, zoo and aquarium. He was eager to watch his son grow. To chase him around the back yard and teach him how to play baseball. As soon as Brodey was born, Matt bought him a Playskool T-ball set, even though he was still too young to hold the bat.
"I'm going to let Brodey know how strong he was and how much he loved us and how much he believed in his faith," Sarah said.
The family is still waiting on information from the military before the funeral arrangements are set, but Sarah hopes anyone in the public who wants to pay their respects will come out.
"I want everyone there who wants to support him," Sarah said. "I won't turn a single person away who wants to support what he did. Because he died an American hero."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3111.