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Utah town grieves for its mayor, a National Guardsman killed in Afghanistan

Utah town grieves for its mayor, a National Guardsman killed in Afghanistan
Tammy Taylor, mother of Maj. Brent Taylor, 39, takes a moment beside his casket at the end of his interment at the Ben Lomond Cemetery in North Ogden, Utah, on Saturday. (Spenser Heaps / Associated Press)

Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton of the Utah National Guard took the folded American flag from the first sergeant and slowly walked between the casket and Jennie Taylor.

He knelt and said a variation on the words war widows have heard for decades. Grateful nation. We present this flag. Token of appreciation.

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It was quiet in the cemetery. Taylor cried.

Then Burton went back. The first sergeant had another flag waiting for Burton. Burton said the same words. This time, Utah National Guard Maj. Brent Taylor’s mother, Tamara, was handed a flag.

But Burton wasn’t even close to being finished.

Megan Taylor — Brent Taylor’s 13-year-old daughter — heard the words and got a flag. Five more times, Burton would make the walk to the first sergeant, who was waiting with a flag to be presented to a child.

Lincoln and Alex — dressed in dark suits — got flags. So did 7-year-old Jacob and 5-year-old Ellie. Jonathan, the 2-year-old, got a flag, too.

“You could see the tears welling up in Maj. Burton’s eyes,” Tamara Taylor said. “It was so hard on him.”

Burton said that in more than 35 years of military service, he’d never handed out so many folded flags at a funeral. The toughest one, however, he didn’t present to a person. It was simply placed in a baby basket. Caroline Taylor will turn a year old next week.

Stephen Taylor, Brent Taylor’s dad, said that’s when it hit him: Nine flags — plus one for him.

“Man, it hurts,” he said.

U.S. Army Maj. Brent Taylor, a 39-year-old father of seven, was buried Saturday afternoon in North Ogden, the town where he was born and which he called home for much of his life. It was the town he became mayor of and the town where he seemed to know most everyone.

Earlier this month, Taylor was killed in Afghanistan, reportedly by a member of the Afghan defense and security forces.

The funeral service drew about 1,000 people to Weber State University in nearby Ogden. The funeral procession to the cemetery in North Ogden was lined with hundreds of flags placed along the side of the road by Boy Scout troops in a drizzle Saturday morning. Jerry Erickson, who works with Boy Scout Troop 52, said they’d planted flags three times: once for Taylor’s arrival, once for his ceremony and once for the funeral procession.

It was the least they could do, he said. It was, he said, really all they could do.

“It’s our way of showing what he meant,” Erickson said.

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Connie Stowe, who owns Kirt’s along a main drag of North Ogden with her husband, closed their restaurant when the procession went by. Kirt’s remade its marquee for the day of the funeral. It read: “Maj. Brent Taylor: Your’s & Your Family’s Sacrifice Never Forgotten.”

Ryan Wilcox, who helped bless Caroline at a ceremony in January, said Kirt’s was a favorite place for him, Brent Taylor and another buddy to meet for lunch. Sometimes, though, Wilcox said, they would gather at Hug-He’s Cafe or Straw Market. The caveat, Wilcox said, was they always had to meet in North Ogden. Mayor’s rules.

The meetings — usually once a month — were strategy sessions centered on parenting stories or tips. Taylor had a mini-farm, with a small tractor, that he was convinced would help teach his kids about the value of hard work. But he was also a fun father, who helped build a luge track in a friend’s yard that was on a slope.

Wilcox said that since Taylor’s deployment, the group had stopped meeting. “He was so central to it,” Wilcox said. He said the group will start meeting again — this time to also talk about ways to help out Taylor’s children. “It’ll be hard without him,” Wilcox said. “But by meeting, it will be like he’s there, too.”

Taylor’s funeral, which lasted for 90 minutes, was attended by a mix of people from the town, punctuated by rows of military personnel in full dress. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who had ordered flags flown at half-staff for the funeral, attended. So did Sen.-elect Mitt Romney and Utah Atty. Gen. Sean Reyes.

The slain soldier’s father conducted the service, choking up briefly when he introduced himself. “I don’t want to fail Brent,” he said.

Army Capt. Derek Taylor delivered a eulogy for his brother that he struggled to get through without crying. As he started, he told the crowd he’d practiced it without losing his composure, but his 15-minute speech saw him reach for tissues, and he sometimes winced with anguish as he relayed anecdotes.

“Whenever I had a phone conversation with him, he always ended with, ‘I love you, Derek,’” Taylor said. “You could feel his sincerity.”

But Derek Taylor also provided some moments of levity. He talked about his brother never being punctual — including a time when everyone was supposed to gather at their parents’ to help clear a creek — “crick,” as he pronounced it — and everyone showed up except Brent. When they were finished, “Brent came walking down a large hill with a smile on his face and a shovel over his shoulder.”

Brent Taylor was also remembered for being generous and ambitious.

He ran for mayor of North Ogden in 2009 and won reelection twice. In the midst of his third term, he was deployed for his fourth tour in Afghanistan in January. Under Utah law, Taylor, as a member of the National Guard, could go despite holding public office.

While he was doing that, he was also nearing completion of his doctorate at the University of Utah in international relations. The University of Utah has said it will award him the degree posthumously next spring.

Burton, who spoke at the funeral, said: “I don’t know when he slept.”

Wilcox said that one winter during a snowstorm, Taylor went out and started plowing the streets of North Ogden so workers could have holiday time with their families. Then Wilcox remembered what Taylor did for the Barboza family.

They had a son killed in Afghanistan almost 10 years ago, and Taylor, their neighbor, hauled a 50-pound metal yellow ribbon to the front yard of Pedro “Pete” Barboza’s parents’ home to show support for them.

When the Barbozas learned of Taylor’s death, Nolberto and Rodrigo Barboza took the yellow ribbon out of their yard, drove it a couple of miles to Taylor’s house and put it up in their yard.

“I knew what pain the family was going through,” Nolberto said in Spanish as his daughter Aurora Alamillio translated. The Barboza family, who live in Southern California, attended the funeral, with Aurora driving four family members 13 hours from Glendale.

The service also centered around Taylor’s faith and membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A video that played before the service included testimonials about his devout nature.

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Stephen Taylor said after the graveside service he knew his son was in a good place and took comfort in that. But when he walked up to the silver casket, he stared at it. Then he patted it and lightly ran his hand over the smooth top.

He said he was thinking about his daughter-in-law. From behind his sunglasses, he tried to hold back tears. He said he needed to tell his son something.

“I said, ‘Stay with Jennie. She’s going to need you in the coming months and years,’” he said. “‘She just lost her best friend in life. Please look out for her.’”

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