NORTH OGDEN — The symbolism of Saturday’s somber ceremony certainly wasn’t lost on anyone here.
At a time when some in this country have called for the removal of certain monuments — or have taken matters into their own hands by defacing or destroying them — a group of grieving-yet-grateful Americans gathered to celebrate the creation of a brand new monument.
On Saturday morning, the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument was unveiled and dedicated in a ceremony at the North Ogden City Hall Plaza, 505 E. 2600 North. Community members, local dignitaries, and families who’ve lost loved ones in military service watched as the monument, shrouded in black, was officially unveiled to the public.
The monument is dedicated to “Gold Star Families,” those whose own flesh and blood paid the ultimate price in defense of their country.
The monument contains four black, polished slabs of stone of varying sizes. On the north-facing side, the monument feature a large gold star and the words “Gold Star Families Memorial Monument: A tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.”
On the south side, each of the four panels is dedicated to a different concept: “Homeland,” “Family,” “Patriot,” and “Sacrifice.” The monument includes various images of flags, along with a Ronald Reagan quote. The two largest sections of the monument have been cut out so that the missing space creates the outline of a saluting service member.
Organizers of both the monument and the ceremony point out that no public funds were used in creating the roughly $120,000 monument. It was all paid for by private donations.
“The only thing the city did was allow the monument to sit on city property,” said North Ogden Mayor Neal Berube.
Berube, who conducted Saturday’s ceremony, called his city “one of the most patriotic communities in the state.” And he says it became even more so after the town lost its mayor in Afghanistan.
After the ceremony, Berube praised the way in which people came together to make the monument a reality.
“Like I said, when a community rallies together, nothing is impossible,” he said. “The impossible just takes a little longer.”
After the monument was unveiled, one-by-one the Gold Star Families of Utahns who died in the service of their country stepped up to the microphone, identified their family member, and then laid yellow roses at the base of the monument.
James Laselute, of Layton, was there representing his stepson, Lance Cpl. Quinn Keith, who was killed by a car bomb in September 2004 in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Laselute said he was grateful for this new monument in the heart of the city.
“For our family, things like this help us through the grieving process and remind ourselves that our loved one’s legacy endures,” he said. “Monuments like this are what keeps their name alive.”
Keith’s mother and Laselute’s wife, Leslie, was in Southern Utah on Saturday and unable to attend the ceremony.
“But I’ll bring her back tomorrow so she can see this,” he said.
Another Gold Star Family in attendance was that of 1st Lt. Kenneth “Kage” Allen, an Air Force pilot from Perry who was killed June 15 when his F-15C Eagle crashed in the North Sea during training in England.
Allen’s mother, Debbie, said the importance of military service had been instilled in her at an early age. She grew up in a military family, and indeed, at one point her own father’s duty was to notify family members when a loved one was killed.
“Now it’s been my turn to experience that,” she said.
Allen said the monument is deeply meaningful to her, her husband and their children.
“We’re a patriotic family,” she said. “God, family, country. That’s everything to us.”
Terry Schow, of South Ogden, is on the American Legion’s National Executive Committee Utah. He’s got a soft spot in his heart for these Gold Star Families and what they’re going through.
“You think about these family members, who will have to live the rest of their life without their loved one,” he said.
Schow said these Gold Star Families are one of the reasons “old guys” like him get upset when someone burns or otherwise disrespects the American flag.
“That flag is the last thing these families will see of their loved ones,” he said.
Kirk Chugg, leader of Follow the Flag North Ogden, was among the speakers at the ceremony. He was a co-chairman of the committee to build Utah’s first Gold Star Families Memorial Monument. There are currently 61 similar monuments installed throughout the country, although this is the first in Utah. The monument was built with the support of the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation.
Chugg said he hopes Gold Star Families will take the opportunity to visit the monument regularly, and when they do he believes they’ll feel the love of those around them — not just those living in the city, but around the country.
The design of the monument, with the outline of the warrior incorporated into it, is deeply symbolic, according to Chugg.
“I watched a young child stand in the cutout of the soldier that represents his father,” he said, his voice choked with emotion.
A number of dignitaries attended Saturday’s ceremony, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Congressman Rob Bishop, and other government and military leaders.
For Weber County Commissioner Jim Harvey, the ceremony and monument stirred deep emotions.
“I have a great respect for this, a tremendous respect for this,” Harvey said. “Everyone in my family served, and they came back home. But today, we heard from a great number of families who had a variety of different ways they were notified their loved ones had paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Standing at the ceremony in near-record-breaking heat, wearing a suit, Harvey said it’s the least he could do for these families.
“They told me I didn’t have to wear a suit to this, that it would be, like, 140 degrees,” Harvey said. “But for all that these families have done for us and our country? I can wear a suit. Wearing a suit is nothing compared to what these families have gone through.”
Rep. Rob Bishop also found Saturday’s event to be an emotional one.
“It was hard to go the entire program without crying,” Bishop said. “As the relatives of those who’ve given their lives, what they sacrificed adds so much to the beauty of this memorial.”
Like many others, Bishop also saw the poignancy of dedicating a monument when others are being removed.
“Not every memorial deserves to stand, but we need to be circumspect about it,” Bishop said. “If we’re so cavalier about removing everything, that debases us.”
Yes, but decades from now there couldn’t possibly be anyone who would object to a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, right?
“You never know,” Bishop said. “Forty years from now, who knows?”
Jennie Taylor is co-chairwoman of the committee to build the monument and the widow of Maj. Brent Taylor, the former North Ogden mayor who was killed in Afghanistan in November 2018. She said it took the group about a year to plan and execute the monument’s creation, but she calls the finished product “breathtaking.”
And Taylor says every detail on the monument is “very intentional.” Particularly the cutout of the “missing” warrior.
“When I see that, I think, ‘It’s missing. He’s missing,’” Taylor said. “But what’s not missing on this monument is the foundation, and I think that’s what the families represent — the foundation.”
While she would never have wished herself to be a part of this fraternity of service members lost, Taylor is nevertheless grateful for all she’s been through.
“I’m heartbroken to be a gold star wife, but I’m very proud of my husband,” she said. “My husband died so that I can get up every morning of my life in freedom. If that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.”
Taylor says she hopes the monument will serve to unite people in this age of increasing divisiveness. She called it significant that her husband’s final message was, “There’s more that unites us than divides us.” Taylor looks at the monument, and what it represents, and asks: “We fight about everything else, but can we all just agree on this?”
“We need to turn to each other,” she said. “But right now, we are turning on each other.”