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 his family with a plaque commemorating Stephenson's life, which they gave back to the school to display in its freedom shrine.

"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, a packed auditorium that was hushed and respectful, patriotic songs and a number of military and civilian dignitaries in attendance.

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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 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.

"Because of people like Dion, we've been able to keep this country free," said Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah.

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."

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