Head leaning into the van window, somber from the funeral proceedings, we drove down the streets of the quaint, small town of Monticello, Utah, towards the city cemetery. My heart was heavy with sadness for a Guard member whom I had never had the honor to meet ... Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler.
Staff Sgt. Butler, an engineer sergeant with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne), was killed in action in Afghanistan August 16, 2017, when conducting building-clearing operations during his deployment. His unit’s mission was aimed at further reducing Islamic State of Iraq and Syrian-Khorasan presence in Afghanistan.
The news of his death hit the state hard, as it had been seven years since Utah Guards last combat loss of Sgt. 1st Class James Thode in 2010. Citizens and Soldiers alike were struck with the harsh reminder of what is asked of our military.
"Ultimately what we do is very dangerous business,” said Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton in the official statement issued after Aaron’s family had been notified. “Our hearts are broken when we lose one of our own.”
Glancing up, flag after flag passed my view as we drove through the town. The seemingly endless line of flags waved gently in the breeze in the bright sunlight as I reflected on the ceremony that just completed at the Monticello L.D.S. Stake Center in the city where Aaron had grown up and his parents reside in to this day.
Aaron was part of a solid Utah family with deep-rooted values, with his father, mother, six brothers and one sister. But his impact obviously reached far beyond his family with so many, both in and out of uniform, attending the funeral proceedings August 26, 2017 in the remote southern Utah town. The room was vast and deep with all of the room dividers open. A sea of love and support stretched through the chapel floor, into the expansion room, across the gymnasium floor, and even onto the elevated stage beyond as all listened.
“I know him good enough to know what he would want me to say,” said Shannon Young, Aaron’s sister and close confidant. “I came, I lived, I killed bad guys, I died,” she said evoking teary chuckles. She shared memories of holding Aaron as a newborn child and recounting his zest for life like no other.
“By the time he was in first grade, he was telling everyone that he wanted to be a Soldier,” she said. “Aaron’s passion to protect not only his family, but his country, grew stronger with each passing minute of his life.”
Aaron was born August 24, 1989, in Monticello, where he excelled in wrestling as a four-time state champion. His momentous wrestling achievement stands to this day unrivaled. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 2008, as a Combat Engineer with the 1457th Engineer Battalion, and then served on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 2009-2011 in Ghana. In June 2015 he transferred to 1st Battalion, 19th SFG (A), in his lifelong pursuit for the Green Beret.
“I have been asked many times, ‘When did Aaron first have a desire to be a Soldier?’ I can honestly say that Aaron was happiest when he had on his camouflage diaper,” said Aaron’s mother, Laura Butler, lifting the heavy-hearted room with a bittersweet smile of recollection. “Many of you have called Aaron a hero, a warrior, and a lion. And indeed, he was these things. But to me, he will always be that bright, green-eyed, toe-headed ball of fire.”
“We know he had a little extra spices put in by our Heavenly Father when he created him,” said Aaron’s father, Randy Butler. “He had a little bit of extra passion ... with everything he did he used that passion. He had a little bit extra courage, and that courage led him greatly as he grew.”
It was apparent to me in the testimony of his family and associates that Staff Sgt. Butler was a man that impacted lives, and that I would have been a better person if I had known him.
“In life as well as his death, he has taught us profoundly,” said his brother, Shane Butler. “He did so in the single most powerful way possible ... with his actions.”
“He gave us all something. He gave us his life. He also gave us his example of courage,” said another brother Chad Butler. “A hope that we can all, in true Aaron style, be relentless in the pursuit of our goals.”
“If you were lucky enough to have known Aaron, you could sense he was different in all the best ways possible,” said Staff Sgt. Trevor Bell, brother-in-arms and fellow member of the 19th Special Forces, who escorted Staff Sgt. Butler home to Monticello, arriving on what would have been Aaron’s 28th birthday. “Very rarely, if ever, do you meet someone like Aaron. When you do, you know it ... and I knew it.”
Staff Sgt. Butler had proposed to the love of his life, Alexandria Seagroves, after his departure to Afghanistan via video teleconferencing. Alexandria’s love for Aaron was obvious in every pained word as she spoke of the moments they had shared, of his diary that she had only recently read, and the dreams for the future they both looked forward to. They lived together in Cedar Hills prior to his deployment.
While small in stature and weakened with grief, she stood tall in her future resolve. “Aaron will live through me,” she proclaimed for all. “Everything that I do, and everyone I come into contact with will know who he was and what he did, and how much he meant to everybody.”
Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler was laid to rest Saturday, August 26, 2017, in Monticello, Utah, with hundreds of family, community members, and soldiers joining to honor this hero. (Photo by Lt. Col. Steven Fairbourn, Utah National Guard Public Affairs)
I was jolted back to the present as the van came to a halt in the Monticello City Cemetery. There was a constant flow of people moving from the stake center to the cemetery along the long, straight roadway lined on both sides with flags swaying. The glimmer of motorcycles from the Patriot Riders paralleled the roadway with the leather-clad, rough riders holding flags adjacent to the crowd. The military members in attendance habitually grouped into a formation, reverently waiting. The military detail stood sharp and ready to render Staff Sgt. Butler a crisp and honorable graveside ceremony.
As we waited, I again reflected on how I was so impacted and inspired by a man I had never met. I, too, joined the military to serve my country and make a positive impact on my community. This passion was stoked by the example and dedication of Aaron that I had only just learned about.
“I know Aaron would want me to tell you to go to work. Find something in your life that you can improve on. Mend broken relationships. Show more respect and concern for your neighbors. Live your life with more gratitude for the great nation we live in and the freedoms we enjoy every single day,” said Shannon. “Take a stand against evil ... even if you will be hated for it. There is always a price to pay for fighting evil. Do it anyway.”
The infectious patriotism of the Butler family and Alexandria was so prevalent, yet this was not a predominantly military family. Aaron was the only one to serve in the military, but the rock-solid foundation of values and support from his family coupled with his desire to serve his country was what forged him.
The focus of the group waiting in the cemetery shifted to the procession of vehicles approaching down the roadway. The lead vehicle came to a slow stop and the pallbearers reverently approached and moved into position. Military honors were executed with gratitude and precision with the rifle salute and bugle as it played in the distance. All watched as the flag draping over the casket was sharply folded, inspected, and handed to Maj. Gen. Burton who presented the flag to Aaron’s mother, Laura.
Maj. Gen. Burton presents fallen Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler’s folded flag to his mother, Laura, at his military funeral in Monticello, Utah on August 26, 2017. (Photo by Lt. Col. Steven Fairbourn, Utah National Guard Public Affairs)
Standing before Laura, as painful tears rolled down her cheeks as she clutched the flag close, his words about Aaron echoed in my mind, “He will live forever in the memories of those he served with. Aaron will never die.”
Col. Larry Henry, commander of the 19th SFG (A), presented a second flag to Aaron’s sister, Shannon, followed by Maj. Tyler Jensen presenting the final flag to fiance, Alexandria. The Butler family and Alexandria stood strong, each individual that had been presented a flag, holding them tightly to their chest as if to hug Aaron one last time.
Brig. Gen. Francis Beaudette, commanding general of 1st Special Forces Command (Airborne), presented Randy and Laura with the Gold Star banner. Following other tokens presented to the family, the ceremony was completed with teary hugs and quiet conversation.
But I realized in that instant that Aaron’s story was not yet over, as his sacrifice and inspiration would live on. I, having never had the privilege of knowing him, will be a better person, father, and Soldier from his example.
“Aaron didn’t choose to die, he chose to live and fight for others,” said Gen. Raymond Thomas, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, who flew from his Florida headquarters for the ceremony. “And while we can ponder why we are still here, I’d offer that the time is better spent seizing the opportunity to dedicate ourselves to the lasting memory of our fallen comrades.”
Laura had echoed this call-to-action in her comments earlier stating “…to his brothers-in-arms, who fought so valiantly shoulder-to-shoulder, who loved our son, and brought him home to us, he would say ‘Fight on, and for so great a cause.’”
The tremendous example of Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler will live on in all of us, and is reinforced through the strength and resolve of his exemplary family. Randy summed it up during the funeral stating of Aaron that he was fearless; well, almost fearless. He had one fear ... his mother was the one who could find out what that was. When asked by his mother Aaron said, “The fear I have is that I will grow old…” but he didn’t finish his statement.
Randy believes he knows what his son meant, and that he meant it to his core. “That Aaron was afraid to grow old, because that would mean he would not be able to do what his life dream was. And that was to be a Special Forces Green Beret, fighting in Afghanistan, defending his country.”
Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler lived and died achieving his life’s dream. And this beloved lion continues to impact us all with a call to action, for each of us in our own way, to do the same.
By Lt. Col. Steven Fairbourn, Utah National Guard Public Affairs
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