Iraqi tanks approached U.S. Marine light armored vehicles Wednesday with their turrets pointing backward, signaling under rules of war that they wanted to surrender.
But when Lance Cpl. Dion James Stephenson, 22, of Bountiful and other U.S. Marines advanced expecting to take prisoners, the Iraqi tanks turned and opened fire.Stephenson and 10 other Marines were killed - becoming the first casualties in the land war in the Persian Gulf.
"What the Iraqis apparently did, it was a war crime," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, about the information he has received about the incident.
Despite his grief, Jim Stephenson, the slain Marine's father, is trying to let the world know his son did not die in vain. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran, he is trying to convey personal messages of support to President Bush and Collin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Hatch said, "He called and asked me to tell the president, Powell and Gen. (H. Norman) Schwarzkopf (commander of coalition forces) that his son didn't die in vain, that he was fighting for real values and he died for all of us, and how much he supports what is being done."
Hatch delivered that message to Powell Thursday morning, who sent word back to the Stephensons that he appreciated their support and sent his love and affection. Hatch was also trying to reach Bush and Schwarzkopf.
Stephenson's parents' home was filled with family members, friends and even the late Marine's high school football coach and principal Thursday.
Jim Stephenson told the Deseret News that his son, a 1987 graduate of Woods Cross High School, was unmarried and had been a Marine for three years - and was a proud member of one of its most elite reconnaissance units.
"He wrote quite a few letters home and called. He conveyed that it was all worth it for the Kuwaiti people and that something had to be done to put this guy (Saddam Hussein) down. He was happy that a majority of the people were behind him. And he backed Schwarzkopf and Powell and other leaders 100 percent," he said.
"He loved people. That's what he was fighting for, the Kuwaiti people - and the children. That's what the war was about to him."
Stephenson said that his son strongly wanted to join the Marines and was happy in the service.
"My son did not die in vain. People who voted for this war do not need to feel guilty. They did the right thing. We totally support them. My son did, too," Stephenson said.
The elder Stephenson has another son in the Persian Gulf who is also in the Marines, Shaun James Stephenson, 19, Hatch said.
Shaun now has the sad assignment of accompanying his older brother's body home for burial.
Hatch was also trying to help arrange for Dion Stephenson's best friend, a Navy corpsman stationed on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, to also attend the funeral.
"I don't want people to forget what he did and how he supported what is being done," Stephenson said about his son.
Even though it has been more than three years since he graduated from high school, Stephenson visited Woods Cross principal Mike Jarman last summer and had been in touch with other teachers at the school.
A former Marine, Jarman said he and Stephenson were well-acquainted before Stephenson graduated and strengthened their kinship after he became a Marine. "He was not excited about war but was excited about being a Marine and serving his country," Jarman said with considerable emotion. "He was the kind of kid you'd like to have a whole school full of."
Stephenson was athletic in high school sports and was a member of the boys' swim team, snow boarding club, Spanish club and National Forensic League. He coached the swim team for a short time before joining the Marines.
Drama teacher Bonni Hobbs characterized Stephenson as "extremely coachable and always a gentleman," the kind of student who was sensitive and could pay attention to detail.
"He was a little guy. He wasn't muscular in strength but he was in heart," said Lee Watson, who was a year behind Stephenson in school. "It didn't matter what crowd you were in, he would always come up and shake your hand."
Watson's mother, Mary Ann, a neighbor of the Stepensons, said the family moved to Bountiful when Dion was in the ninth grade. "He just fit in like a glove," she said. "I just hope he didn't die in vain."
Jarman announced the tragic news to the high school Thursday morning and said it cast a somber poll over the student body, even though most of the students now at the school didn't know Stephenson.
Neighbors to the Stephensons had tears in their eyes and some seemed to be in shock. One man said a Marine contingent came to the family's home a few minutes before 2 a.m. Thursday to tell the family about the death.
Yellow ribbons and an American flag were near the family's front door in Bountiful, as friends and neighbors visited. The driveway was filled with the cars of people who kept arriving to give the family comfort.
Neighbors said the family had asked not to be disturbed by reporters at this time.
Friends and classmates of Stephenson remembered him as a cheerful, friendly and athletic young man who coached the Woods Cross High School swim team for a short time before he joined the Marine Corps after graduation in 1987.
Stephenson celebrated his 22nd birthday in December, presumably while serving in the Persian Gulf.
Lee Watson said, "How do you describe Dion? I never thought he'd go into the Marines. He was very kind. He treated everybody great. He was honest, and he was gentle."
He said Stephenson was on the swim team and clached Little League soccer.
One neighbor blamed the media for finding out too much about where troops are stationed and said these reports may have contributed to Stephenson's death.
"We feel real bad that the sucking media has to have all this information," he said. He later apologized for his intemperance.
A woman who did not want to be identified said Stephenson was a fine boy, very even-tempered, courteous and well-mannered. A man said he believes he was in a special elite group of the Marines.
Sherry Rhoton, a neighbor who said she was in the same class as Stephenson at Woods Cross High School, remembered him as a "very good-looking" dark-haired young man who was well-liked.
"He got along with everybody," Rhoton said. "He was a lot of fun - he was always having fun. He was into school and into grades."
She said she was not surprised when he joined the Marines shortly after high school "because his dad had a career with the military. It was something Dion really wanted to do, to follow in his father's footsteps."
One neighbor began to tell the Deseret News that Dion and his family "were the best" but then began to break down. "It's hard for me to talk. He was a great kid," he said.
Staring out his glass front door at the snowy neighborhood he added, "I don't mean to be impolite. But we're all upset."
A neighbor remembered that Stephenson enjoyed life and sports. "He had a lot of friends. I noticed that a lot of nice young people came and went while Dion was a senior in high school," he said.
The war hits home
As news of the death of Lance Cpl. Dion James Stephenson, 22, became known, Utah lawmakers paused to offer condolences and reflect.
Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, recounted his conversation with Jim Stephenson, the father of the slain Marine.
"His parting comment was to tell the president that we must continue in this resolve, and that Saddam (Hussein) must be pushed back to Baghdad and defeated," Hansen said. "Our cause is just and necessary, and the testimony of a family with such a tragic and personal loss confirming this is heartening."
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, who was the presiding officer over the House during Hansen's speech, added his condolensces to the family and said the tragedy of war never really hits home until it involves a neighbor.
Meanwhile in Utah, House Speaker Craig Moody, R-Sandy, made the announcement to his colleagues - an announcement greeted with deathly silence.
"This is a reminder we need to remember these soldiers in our prayers," he said.