SALT LAKE CITY — Geri Stephenson clutched the American flag and ran a section of the Salt Lake Marathon for her oldest son, Dion.
She ran to honor the life he lived — fearless, fun-loving and compassionate.
She ran to mourn the life he was denied.
She ran to honor her son’s sacrifice in January 1991, when he became the first Utah soldier to lose his life in Desert Storm.
Geri Stephenson carries the flag to honor her son, L/Cpl Dion Stephenson, who was killed in 1991 in Desert Storm. | Amy Donaldson, Deseret News
She ran, holding the flag high, to remind the world that some sacrifices never end, some heartbreaks never mend and some loves never die.
The longtime Bountiful resident agreed to participate in a one-of-a-kind relay the Salt Lake Marathon offers to Team Red, White and Blue as a way to honor those who’ve served and sacrificed in service to this country.
“I’m proud to be Dion’s mom,” she said as she ran. “And that he’s still remembered after 26 years.”
About eight miles before Geri Stephenson carried the flag to honor her son, my KSL colleague Debbie Dujanovic and I took our turn carrying the special relay flag for Dion. I never met him, but was so moved by something Debbie wrote commemorating Dion’s death, that I asked her for Geri’s number and we decided Dion would have a fan club on the marathon course Saturday morning.
It is a special and deeply moving experience to run for a soldier who has made the ultimate sacrifice for the country I love. It connects you to people you’ve never met in a way that defies description.
L/Cpl Dion Stephenson was the first Utah soldier killed in Desert Storm in January 1991. | Courtesy Geri Stephenson
Dion Stephenson joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. Geri said it was likely “family tradition” that motivated him as his father served in the Marine Corps. His maternal grandfather, paternal grandmother and paternal grandfather all served in World War II.
His mother was a mixture of proud and scared when he enlisted, just as she was when Dion’s younger brother, Shaun, followed him into the Marines. Her worry turned to fear when, on Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.
“I will never forget that date,” Geri said. “He left seven days later.”
She watched cable news, which did nothing to ease her mind. Then, on Jan. 29, 1991, she heard a news report on the radio about seven U.S. Marines dying in a light-armored vehicle.
“That’s what Dion was in,” she said softly. “So, I guess, a mother just knows.” the rest of that day was “a lot of anxiety” as she waited.
“I just stayed home all day, and I was just watching out the window,” she said. “My husband came home, and we didn’t talk a whole lot.” They went to bed without word.
“And then the doorbell rang about, oh, it was 2:50 in the morning,” she said. “I looked through the blinds and it was like, I just pleaded with God. I just kept saying, ‘Please, God, no. Just no, please, no.’”
Officers rang the bell repeatedly, until Geri finally mustered the courage to answer the door to have a conversation she didn’t want to have.
Both her boys were in the Gulf, but she knew which one she’d lost.
In the years since, she holds onto the love they shared, the remarkable young man he was and the memories others share with her.
“He was very sensitive,” she said. “He was very, very loving and just proud to be with me. He would be the kid to probably take me to a dance or something.”
A standout swimmer with a generous heart, he was also an adventure seeker who is described repeatedly as a kind and loyal friend.
Geri Stephenson said she’s had numerous experiences over the years that have convinced her Dion is still with her, still watching over her, still loving her.
Saturday morning, she strapped on Dion’s Mickey Mouse watch and headed to Salt Lake to join Team Red, White and Blue in a relay that reminds us all of the great and terrible toll that war takes on families that are too often forgotten.
The man who carried that same flag Geri hoisted above her head at mile 24, knows something about how society sometimes fails to embrace the men and women who serve all citizens with their military service.
Stan Taylor was drafted during the Vietnam War, and while he didn’t volunteer, he said he was proud to serve. He survived a double lung transplant last year, and was surprised when Team RWB asked him to carry the flag across the finish leading 45 runners to the relay’s finale.
“I was a little surprised,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m that neat of a guy to make a big deal of.”
Taylor said he was proud to represent the team, which helps veterans adjust to civilian life through social and physical activities, because so many of the men and women who ran alongside him volunteered to serve, just as Dion did.
Having the kind of communal embrace he experienced with Team RWB Saturday is a far cry from his experience after serving a year in Vietnam.
“It’s quite a bit different,” he said, “When we got home from Vietnam, we put our stuff in a suitcase and hid it under the stairs and didn’t let anyone know.”
Taylor had five uncles who served in World War II, and he remembers his grandmother hanging a flag with five stars on it in her window.
“Luckily they all came home,” he said. “They all came home a little changed, but they came home. I was always proud to be a soldier like they were.”
Saturday afternoon as he carried the flag into the finish area, surrounded by soldiers and civilians cheering him on, he thought of a young soldier who would have enjoyed a moment he doesn’t think he deserves. “I had a really good friend, Melvin Barnett, who didn’t make it home,” he said, noting that his wife had a picture of Stan and Melvin on a special bib she wore in Saturday’s race. “I thought about him, and the 45 years of life that he’s missed. He probably would have liked to cross that finish line too. I would have liked to have him there.”
Like Geri, Stan has advice from how we can all honor sacrifices of men like Dion Stephenson and Melvin Barnett.
“Since (President) Trump has been in office, I’ve been hearing a lot of people saying, ‘I’m just so fed up with all of what’s going on and people being so polarized and all of that.’ They (want) to ignore it, quit turning on the television, but that’s probably the worst thing we could do is to not stand up for what these guys fought for. Make sure all of us do our part to keep America democratic and free, honor the sacrifice they made for them by doing everything we can as citizens.”