Family, friends and representatives of Utah and the nation paid their last respects Sunday and Monday to Lance Cpl. Dion James Stephenson, remembering him as a gifted, exuberant young man who died for the country he loved.
"Let us rejoice in the memories of the special ways he touched our lives," Stephenson's friend and high school coach, John Haning, told those attending a prayer vigil at St. Olaf's Catholic Church in Bountiful Sunday night.The 22-year-old Stephenson and 10 other Marines were killed Jan. 30 during a battle to recapture the Saudi Arabian town of Khafji. He is the state's first combat casualty of the Persian Gulf war.
Following a funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Stephenson was to be buried Monday afternoon at Bountiful City Cemetery with full honors rendered by the U.S. Marine Corps' Company C, 4th Light Infantry Battalion.
At the prayer vigil, American flags lined the driveways leading to the church, where a large portrait of Stephenson stood beside his flag-draped coffin. A choir sang the songs he liked, closing with, "You Are My Hero," and friends and relatives wept.
Recalling the day he learned of Stephenson's death, the Rev. Rudolph A. Daz said, "The news was tinged with rays of hope of glory, knowing he died in the service of the country he loved, for a cause he believed in his heart was right."
Stephenson's young life was "in its first flower," the Rev. Daz said. "His death recalls our human condition."
Haning, who coached Stephenson at Woods Cross High School, described him as a "magnetic, genuine personality" who left an impression on everyone he met.
"So many people had a special relationship with Dion," Haning said, citing Stephenson's love for his family and for children. "He touched many of our children's lives."
Stephenson was popular not only among children in his own neighborhood but also among young pen pals in New York and children he encountered in Saudi Arabia. One photograph he sent home shows a group of Saudi children gathered around him.
Haning said Stephenson was particularly attached to his youngest brother, Michael. And Dion and his other brother, Lance Cpl. Shaun James Stephenson, 19, were best friends, Haning said.
Shaun, who also was serving in Operation Desert Storm, accompanied his brother's silver casket home from the Persian Gulf, arriving in Salt Lake City Wednesday night.
Stephenson was born in Las Vegas Dec. 19, 1968, to James Thomas and Geri Calabra Stephenson. He was very close to his parents, Haning said, adding that his father, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, "was his role model."
Quoting, "Love is patient, love is kind . . . love never fails," Haning said, "That is how Dion approached life with his family and his friends."
Uncertainty over the details of the Marine deaths at the battle for Khafji led to conflicting accounts, including an early report that they might have been killed by "friendly fire." Later reports excluded Stephenson from a list of those believed to have died from the allied attack.
In an interview last week, his father said his son died a hero regardless of the circumstances surrounding the battle.
"That's the way I'd like to have him remembered," his father said, "as an American hero."