Monday was Dion Stephenson's 26th birthday, and there was a big celebration with lots of love and lots of people, plenty of laughter and a few tears.
The only thing missing was Dion.The young Marine was killed by "friendly fire" in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.
Left behind were his father, Jim, mother Geri, and two brothers, Shaun, who is studying at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Michael. Stephenson, a 1987 Woods Cross High School graduate, also was fondly remembered by many friends, fellow soccer and swim team members, teachers and just about anyone who came into his life.
The school on Monday presented the Stephenson family with a plaque commemorating Stephenson's life, which they in turn gave back to the school to display in its freedom shrine in the main hallway.
"It is fitting that it hang there," said Woods Cross principal Doug Beers. "Dion gave the greatest gift - he gave his life for another society, another culture, so they could be free from some of the most insidious, evil leaders we've seen."
It was a ceremony marked by military pomp and ceremony, a packed high school auditorium that was hushed and respectful, several patriotic songs and a number of military and civilian dignitaries in attendance.
But from time to time, the event was punctuated with warmhearted remembrances of Stephenson's mischievous side, like the time he wormed his way into an overhead ventilation duct and teasingly pelted his unsuspecting friend Trent Dransfield with beads that seemingly came out of nowhere.
An "outsider" from California, and a Catholic to boot, Stephenson eased his way effortlessly into the predominantly Mormon Woods Cross scene. He made friends wherever he went and went out of his way to show he cared about other people and their feelings. Religious differences never came into play during high school, and he later vigorously defended his LDS friends when other Marines criticized Utah or its customs.
Many speakers at the memorial service noted that although Desert Storm seems like a small conflict when compared with the massive carnage of World War I or World War II, it still took a painful human toll and kept the despotic Saddam Hussein at bay.
"Because of people like Dion, we've been able to keep this country free," said Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.
"Hussein was an evil man, a tyrant and a torturer," said KUTV reporter Rod Decker. "Because of Desert Storm, all the people in the world have a better, safer world."
But such freedom never comes without sacrifice, said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah. "We are honored by the lives of those who paid that sacrifice."
Greg Engeman, representing Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Hatch could identify with the sorrow experienced by Shaun and Michael since Hatch, too, lost a brother during World War II.