SALT LAKE CITY — More than a dozen families somberly filed into the Senate and House chambers Friday, some clutching framed photographs of their loved ones who served in the armed forces.
Lawmakers on the Senate floor and visitors in the gallery rose in respect for the families of 19 fallen Utah soldiers. The Legislature paid an emotional tribute to the friends and family members left behind.
"We honor you," said Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Logan. "We honor those who have given their lives. They will have their reward. They’re gone temporarily, but they’re not forgotten by all of us. From a grateful state, from a grateful nation, we express our heartfelt thanks to all of you."
Last year, the Legislature didn't have any soldiers to recognize. This year, it recognized one soldier who passed away at the end of 2012 and 17 soldiers who died in 2013.
Each soldier was killed in action or died as a result of repercussions from service. Of the 19 soldiers, 13 were confirmed suicides and more are under investigation. One soldier died at Walter Reed Medical Center from cancer discovered after collapsing in Afghanistan.
A 19th soldier honored Friday was killed in 1944 during World War II, but it wasn't until August 2013 that 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird was recovered, identified and sent home.
"We are committed to remembering that the preservation of our liberty comes at a price, and that price is often paid by young men and women who selflessly put themselves in harm's way to protect the lives of innocent people in lands far from home," a clerk read from the official citation.
The Legislature hadn't included suicides specifically before in its annual tribute. But Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden — who has worked on the annual tribute for seven years — said they should be included because the loss is the same, perhaps even harder for families. He said there are many direct consequences from war, not just being shot or hitting an improvised explosive device.
"Suicide is a very real thing, and it's so permanent. And we don't understand it as a society really, and don't know how to deal with it," Wilcox said.
The lawmaker let his emotions surface as he talked about a little boy who asked him to lift him up Friday when the group took a photo from the House balcony after the recognition event.
"All I could think was, 'This should be your dad,'" Wilcox said. "On top of that, the look in that mother's eyes when I'm suddenly in that role for a second. Grandpa's here, but he didn't ask Grandpa to pick him up."
Wilcox said soldiers should receive more training and information that could help with suicide prevention. People in general need to be more aware of when suicide is a risk and what they can do to help prevent it, he said.
"By all accounts, talking to the National Guard and talking to those (military) branches, (suicides were) dramatically higher than normal. There likely are several of those that we've missed in years past but certainly not 13 confirmed from that one factor," Wilcox said.
Christensen called for a moment of silence in the Senate to "ponder the sacrifices that these families and their loved ones have given so that we might preserve and have the freedoms that we enjoy and take for granted all the time."
In attendance was the family of Sgt. Shawn M. Nelson, who died Dec. 14, 2012, when he was 29. Nelson's parents and wife came with his two sons, Cameron and Hayden, now ages 5 and 8.
"He was really nice, and he liked helping people and served the country," Hayden said while holding a photo of his father, who looks just like him.
Hayden's grandmother, Jodie Nelson, of Brigham City, said Hayden recently dressed up like his dad in camouflage for a superhero day at school.
Sgt. Nelson joined the Army in 2004, telling his mom after signing up that he loved his country and wanted to serve full time instead of the National Guard, which was his original intent.
He served a tour in Afghanistan, joined the reserves in North Carolina and then transferred to the Utah National Guard in July 2012 to be closer to his sons living in Utah with their mother. He got to spend a few months with them before he died in December.
"It was such a blessing to have been able to enjoy his company and give him a hug and be able to be together as a family again," said his father, Ken Nelson.
Jodie Nelson said her son loved to read and learn and work with computers. He loved jumping out of airplanes and told her she needed to put that on her bucket list. He was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues, his mother said.
She and her husband both expressed gratitude for the opportunity to be with other families in the same situation.
"It's good to be with other people that feel what you're feeling and that are bleeding like you're bleeding because it's very, very hard — probably one of the hardest things that we've ever gone through in our life," Jodie Nelson said.
The families gathered in the House chamber as well, where Wilcox called this type of gratitude a "solemn duty and even a sacred honor."
"Freedom is a precious gift bestowed upon us at an enormous cost. We must never forget that our ability to pursue happiness is a direct product of the blood that they shed," he said.
Wilcox gave special praise to those who raised the 19 fallen soldiers who left a legacy of courage.2 comments on this story
"Because of their courage and their fire, because of their sacrifice," Wilcox said, "we remain safe in the land of the free. We become the land of the brave."
Those soldiers who were honored are: Sgt. Shawn M. Nelson, Staff Sgt. Michael L. Valdes. Lt. Joshua R. Wall, Spc. David M. Gannon, Pfc. Cody J. Towse, Spc. Jeremy T. Olsen, Staff Sgt. Christian L. Larsen, 1st Sgt. Tracy L. Stapley, Spc. Tommy Kidman, Spc. Jal W. Oomrigar, Staff Sgt. Terry T. Groulx, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Richard C. Isaksen, Tech Sgt. Gregory M. Littlefield, Sgt. Brett Kelly Nickell, Spc. Curtis A. Smith, Staff Sgt. Zackary S. Barton, Sgt. Matthew C. Larson, Sgt. Landon L. Henscheid, and 2nd Lt. Vernal J. Bird.