NORTH OGDEN — Just two months ago Thursday, Jennie Taylor was inside the headquarters of the Utah National Guard and "processing the most shocking news of my life," she says.
It was on that day that Taylor learned her husband, National Guard Maj. Brent Taylor, had been killed while serving in Afghanistan, and on which she began the very earliest stages of grappling with how to emotionally support her children and relay the terrible news to her her husband's parents.
"There's no other way to describe the reaction other than sheer shock," Taylor remembers.
Compounding the heart-rending weight she was suddenly struggling under, Taylor was suddenly faced with the question of how to financially provide for her seven kids as a single parent.
"I'm a stay-at-home mom, I'm proud to be so," she said. "The thought of me having to find a day care facility, a job or two … really weighed on me."
Within 48 hours of receiving the news, "I was on my way to Dover (Air Force Base) to receive Brent back on to American soil," Taylor said Thursday. During that time of intense grieving, she recalls, she was in "kind of a blur, kind of a fog" — and grappling with many new questions about her family's future and not so many answers.
It was then that her sister called, and asked her — how much remained to be paid on her mortgage?
"Why are you asking me that question?" she remember responding.
The reason, it turns out, is that the New York City-based Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation "had reached out to my family and assured us they would give us a mortgage-free home."
"And that they have done."
Taylor — whose husband was taking a leave of absence from his duties as North Ogden Mayor to serve a fourth tour in combat when he was killed — said Tunnel to Towers paying off of her entire mortgage is emblematic of the generous outpouring of love from "this wonderful community, this state, and this nation."
In the process of that outpouring, "we have somehow become the public face of our local military families," Taylor said, and there are responsibilities that come with that visibility to "now represent the military in our area."
It is with that sense of responsibility in mind Thursday that Taylor stood at North Ogden's City Hall to implore Utahns to rally behind other military families in need of a financial help — whether due to a death or catastrophic injury suffered in war — and to do so by contributing to Tunnel to Towers.
"We are not the first gold star family, and unfortunately we will not be the last gold star family," she said.
Taylor was joined by two Utah veterans of the Iraq War, each of whom are Purple Heart recipients who were catastrophically wounded in combat, who also urged Utahns to donate. Both men are already slated as soon-to-be beneficiaries of Tunnel to Towers' efforts to build and pay for high-tech homes capable of assisting those with severe injuries suffered in war.
A person does not have to be a member of the military, police officer or firefighter to "give service to your country," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Travis Vendela, who lost both of his legs when his vehicle was the target of an explosive in Balad, Iraq, in 2007.
"But what can you do — you can serve the guys that serve you," Vendela said.
Vendela's smart home will be built in Huntsville. According to a release from Tunnel to Towers, such homes are customizable and "can be run from an iPad and offer features such as motorized kitchen cabinet shelving … mechanized lifts that allow the stove to be at wheelchair height, oversized doorways and an extensive HVAC system that allows for specialized body temperature challenges."
"Every inch of each home is specifically designed with the individual veteran's needs — and physical challenges in mind," the organization said.
Vendela was familiar with Tunnel to Towers from having previously participated in its 5K in New York City, and reached out to them this summer about the possibility of receiving some help for a smart home. He said that was after he slowly realized his body was breaking down from day-to-day activities around the house, which are not naturally suited to someone with his challenges.
"Man, it was quick — they're like, 'Yep, any scenario you're in right now, we can work around it, and we'll fix it. We can give you a house built for you that does things you need … that will probably (help you heal)," Vendela said.
Marine Sgt. Brian Johnston, who will soon be the occupant of a smart home in Hooper built and paid for by Tunnel to Towers, lost his right arm and right leg in an explosion in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He said the new home will transform how he gets by from day to day.
"It's really incredible how life-changing it is for them to build houses for people like me," Johnston said. "It's really going to change the rest of my life."
Johnston said he feels compelled to speak out on behalf of the foundation, because he is just one of many injured Utah veterans who "would all benefit from these kinds of houses."
"Eleven dollars a month would build a lot of houses for a lot of guys," Johnston said.
That is the donation amount suggested by Frank Siller, the chairman and CEO of Tunnel to Towers, who suggested $11 per month is small enough that many Americans can afford to give it on a regular basis, but large enough to make considerable headway in serving veterans.
"I know people from Utah are the most generous people in America. We're asking everybody to do $11," Siller said. "We're already committed … no matter what. But we want you to join us."
Siller said Tunnel to Towers is named for the heroism displayed by his younger brother on the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
That day, Stephen Siller, a firefighter working in Brooklyn, ran toward the towers through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel — which was closed to vehicle traffic at that time — to help those endangered by the attack. He would end up giving his life in that rescue effort.
"It was such a loss for us. … All we knew as a family is that we wanted to do good for our little brother, who sacrificed so much," Frank Siller said. "When you go to serve your country, or you go to serve your community, or you give your kids a kiss goodbye and you don't come home or you're catastrophically injured, we're going to take care of your families and you."
He said Jennie Taylor recently asked him what she could do to thank the organization, to which he responded with an invitation to "join us and send that message of what it means to have a mortgage-free home in your life."
Taylor said Thursday that she would urge anyone "who's ever met me, who's ever met Brent, ever been moved by our story," to consider donating.
She said just as she was proud to support her husband in serving his country — "He never had to assure me, we decided together, we committed together" — she is proud to now to be signed up to give $11 each month to help families in similar situations.
Those who need donors' help include military members and their families who narrowly escaped the sting of death in combat, but whose lives were nonetheless changed forever because of devastating wounds, Taylor emphasized.
"I can't imagine taking some of America's bravest men and women and then putting them in a capacity where they can't serve themselves — when they so willingly served us."
Anyone who wishes to donate to Tunnel to Towers can do so by visiting tunnel2towers.org.