The dreams he carried

Brent Taylor was celebrated as a small-town mayor who kept returning to war zones. Nearly three years after his death — and as the U.S. commits to withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan — he stands out as something altogether different

He fast-walks through rolling, dun-colored foothills below a solitary ridgeline east of Kabul. Body armor hugs his chest. A heavy ruck jostles against his back, straps chafing his shoulders. At 39, he’s in the best shape of his life, 200 pounds and a sinewy 6-foot-4  — counting his wavy, salt-and-pepper hair. The air is sour with burnt refuse and sweat, but Maj. Brent Taylor keeps flashing a toothsome politician’s grin. 

Behind him, about 40 Afghan commandos kick up dust. Like every Saturday, they’ve volunteered for this ruck march, a 2.5-mile trot in full kit, with M4s in hand. Brent leads, as usual. He veers off the road, winding over a hill, past some water tanks. His Guardian Angel — a 19-year-old bodyguard fresh out of basic — and his interpreter stay close, but Brent is among friends. Guys tell stories, lean in for selfies and play American music for each other on their phones. Down the hill, a few Afghans take tea at a tiny table beside the path. 

Brent steps down into a ditch, then back up onto the asphalt road to Camp Scorpion, the warren-like military base outside Kabul. Far ahead, his blue eyes catch the Hindu Kush mountains, a wall of stone that reminds him of home. A highway rolls into a canyon carved by the Kabul River. Terraced homes climb one hillside as excavators dismantle the other. 

He doesn’t hear the crack of the bullet. 

On foot patrol in a wadi, or dry riverbed, during his 2012 tour in Afghanistan, Maj. Brent Taylor holds an M4 rifle. A bullet shot from the same model would kill him six years later. | Provided by the Taylor family

Utah. North Ogden. February 2021. 

She gazes at the painting, looking into the eyes of her late husband with his arm around an Afghan comrade’s shoulders. Then she lets the frame fall back in with the other mementos: A khaki baseball cap labeled “COMBAT ADVISOR.” A threadbare volleyball signed by fellow officers. A hand-painted plate from Maceio, Brazil, where Brent served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a young man. More paintings and photographs. They all languish in a storeroom on the second floor of a barn-shaped shed. 

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Brent Taylor, a major in the Utah National Guard, was shot and killed by an Afghan special forces trainee on Nov. 3, 2018. Insider attacks have become commonplace in a conflict now largely defined by training missions, but it is rare for an American officer to be killed at war, much less a father of seven and a small-town mayor with a choirboy persona. 

The New York Times and Washington Post eulogized him. ABC and Fox tracked his flag-covered casket to Dover Air Force Base. Time, People and Russia Today covered the news. Congressmen mourned him on Twitter and senators honored him in their chamber. An honorary doctorate and a documentary came later. The Salt Lake Tribune named him Utahn of the Year, “an enthusiastic evangelist for democracy.”

The war Brent Taylor gave his life for — “America’s Forever War” — is coming to an end: In April, President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of all combat troops from the country by Sept. 11. The Pentagon and Biden’s own military advisers have warned that the Taliban will likely retake the country, despite a peace deal with the previous U.S. administration. That will bring up the inevitable question of what the U.S. accomplished during the longest war in its history, one that has persisted for nearly 20 years, cost over $2 trillion, and killed 2,218 American soldiers, with more than 20,000 wounded. 

Armored vehicles travel in a convoy through Kunduz, Afghanistan, in 2012. Stationed nearby, Maj. Brent Taylor would frequently traverse the vibrant city of about 270,000 en route to the northern border region. | Provided by the Taylor family

Among them, Brent Taylor cuts a poignant figure, not for what he did, but for who he was: an old-fashioned dad, a fatherly mayor, a man of unbending ideals. He believed in this war, as a way to make life better for the Afghan people. Through all his tours — four volunteer deployments in 11 years and two wars — he never veered from the earnest, former missionary he’d always been. Given his zeal for mingling with the locals, playing emissary where it wasn’t required, you could argue that he never really left his church mission at all. Ironically, those good intentions, mixed with a need to prove his worth in war zones, may be what got him killed. 

But before all that, Brent was a unique individual, a true believer driven by ambition and what he called “enlightened self-interest,” and everywhere he went, a pain in somebody’s keister.

Arizona. Chandler High School. May 1997.

A 17-year-old boy steps to the podium, lanky and blond in blue cap and gown. The heat is just bearable after dark, and the graduating class sits in a checkerboard across the football field — boys in blue, girls in white. Brent speaks from the end zone. “I’m inviting you all to a reunion at the White House in the year 2020,” he says, with practiced confidence, “if you’ll give me your vote on the Republican ticket at that time.” A few chuckle; those who know him cheer.

Even growing up, Brent’s siblings called him “the president.” Born in Ogden in 1979, he was the second of seven sons, with one younger sister, and the only one who wore a three-piece suit to church and carried a briefcase. He wasn’t into sports, or good at them — his brothers still joke that he was better as a referee — but he loved to read novels and history books. His father worked long hours as a civilian contractor to the military; his mother had her hands full at home. 

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In 1991, the family moved to Chandler, a quiet suburb southeast of Phoenix, where the precocious child grew into an awkward, lovesick teen. He was always in love but never made a move. “I think he was afraid to,” says Justin Owens, a high school friend. Girls liked Brent. He was the funny guy who emceed the school talent show in a late-night talk format. They didn’t like him romantically. “He spoke like a grandfather,” says Audra, now Justin’s wife. In yearbook photos, he stands behind the group or off to the side, looking uncomfortable.

But his confidence blossomed when he was in charge. At Chandler High he recruited friends to run for student council on a joint ticket, as “the Dream Team.” It worked, three years in a row. As a senior, Brent became student body president. Obsessed with politics, he did a mean Bill Clinton impression and loved arguing on talk radio, sometimes calling from a bowling alley pay phone between frames. But his ambitions already extended to Washington. “By that point, he’d calculated it out,” Justin says. “He’d mention it twice a day.”

Utah. Brigham Young University. September 2001.

On a crisp Tuesday morning, he rushes down a concrete stairwell to the bottom of a leafy hillside. Political Science 201 is canceled; Western political history can wait. Red and gold speckle the trees south of campus, but he hardly notices. His long legs stretch with each hurried step back to his dingy six-man apartment. Inside, black smoke curls from a skyscraper on a grainy television screen. A Boeing 767 smashes into that building’s twin. Brent watches. Over and over — 9/11 has given him something new to obsess about.

At 22, a year removed from his church mission, he loves America more than ever. He loved the people of Alagoas, one of Brazil’s poorest states, but not the country. It was always hot, always wet. He walked long miles in rough streets and villages, speaking for his faith, promising hope and salvation. He saw more of the region as the mission president’s roving assistant — helping missionaries to get in line, get to work or be more productive — and came to resent a government he saw as neglecting its own. 

Still, coming home was hard. Losing that righteous daily cause, that urgency, can leave you hollow. Many returned missionaries gravitate to BYU, to study and live among like-minded folks.

They come for an education and often leave married, with a child or two. Brent transferred in that summer from Mesa Community College. He’s still plotting his future: majoring in political science, prepping for law school, founding the BYU Constitution Club and refusing to drive over the speed limit, because how will that ticket look in the campaign? He lives in a world with no room for mistakes. 

When his roommate makes the Young Ambassadors, a musical theater troupe, Brent takes a blind date to see him perform. She seems like a perfect match — tall, willowy, smart and patriotic, just back from a mission in Chile — but the night is a disaster. On another night, after a church fireside with friends, Brent and Jennie finally bond over ice cream and how much they both love America. Later, after their first real date, he can’t contain himself. Jumping off the apartment wall, pumping his fist. “I kissed her,” he cries. Finally, his first kiss. “And I’m gonna do it again!”

With Jennie’s backing, Brent meets with an Army recruiter. The new couple spends months poring over charts and diagrams, potential career paths that lead to the Oval Office. But after the U.S. invades Iraq in March 2003, it’s decided. Brent proposes that June. Days later, the pair walk hand in hand into the National Guard headquarters. 

Sitting with a colleague, Maj. Brent Taylor ties flies for fly-fishing during his 2012 deployment to northern Afghanistan. | Provided by the Taylor family

Iraq. FOB Q-West. August 2007.

Nothing ever moves fast enough. The convoy crawls south, 90 semis and 10 gun trucks, inching through the night at 20 mph. In a Humvee near the lead, 2nd Lt. Taylor, 28, scans the broad highway for fresh potholes or Christmas lights — signs of IEDs — and watches the minutes tick by on a GPS screen. It’s his job to get his platoon safely through Mosul, a growing insurgent stronghold, under cover of darkness, and they’re lagging. The sun rises as they roll into the city. Shops open and people gawk from the sidewalks. Brent snaps photos of the Walls of Nineveh, a biblical landmark he hasn’t seen on previous drives. Then the radio crackles: “Uh, sir, we’re definitely on the wrong route.”

Four years in, the war looks as wild as ever on the ground. Utah’s 116th Engineer Company is running convoy security north of Baghdad, one of many National Guard specialist units taking up conventional infantry missions. The military is stretched thin, with two wars and now “the surge.” As the eponymous strategy to pacify Iraq through overwhelming numbers pushes insurgents north, they’re regrouping in Mosul. 

Brent joined the 116th fresh out of officer school in 2007. He lobbied to lead his platoon in the field, rather than from a desk. Each mission is a slog: dusk to dawn, 250 miles round-trip from Forward Operating Base Qayyarah Airfield West to Turkey’s Habur Gate. Only rarely does a roadside bomber blow himself up, or the platoon stumbles onto a friendly-fire incident. Today is a grand exception.

An IED explodes somewhere behind him along the 3-mile convoy. A major who’s driving Brent’s Humvee offers to take charge. “Like hell you will,” Brent thinks, though it’s just his third mission in command. Another bomb goes off. Gunshots echo off the walls. His men wonder if this is how they die. On the radio, Brent assures them that he knows where they are and how to get out. It’s a necessary lie, but he prays he can make it right, as he pores over the GPS screen. Snaking through the old city, past a bombed-out bridge he’d hoped to cross, somehow he gets them back onto the highway, where they hit another IED before limping home.

It’s a disaster. As convoy commander, Brent knows it could derail his career. But despite Brent’s use of an off-limits “black route” through the city — and 20 vehicles damaged and six soldiers wounded — a lieutenant colonel praises his poise in getting his unit out of a bad situation. Later, Brent calls the trip “my finest hour as a leader.” If nothing else, he never gets lost again. 

In 2007, Maj. Brent Taylor decorated the wall of his quarters on a base in northern Iraq with family photos, inspirational quotes and religious images. | Provided by the Taylor family

On base, he sticks to wholesome pastimes, playing Halo and indoor soccer. He runs church services on Sundays and calls Jennie from a bank of phones. He makes his CHU — containerized housing unit — a home. He plants a miniature flag in a jug filled with dirt he carried from Camp Shelby, labeled “U.S. Soil,” and he recites the Pledge of Allegiance in front of it each morning. He hangs family photos — Megan is 2, Lincoln 6 months old — along with inspirational quotes and cutouts from religious magazines. Just like he did on his church mission. “My choice of decorations was very different from my men,” he writes later, as “a straight-leg Mormon and not ashamed of it.” 

His main focus seems to be bucking for an early promotion. In the National Guard, officers must serve 24 months to be eligible. Brent started asking back in Utah about nine months in. He tried again in August, asking Jennie to forward all the “Brent is great memos” from his computer at home. Even with support from his chain of command, his third attempt, in March 2008, still falls short. 

An incident that January becomes an opportunity. A few rebellious soldiers strip and run circles around their Humvee at a checkpoint, to protest the command climate. Brent gives their platoon leader an ultimatum: Report this or I will. She refuses. The ensuing shakeup leaves him as company XO, or executive officer. His duties are administrative, but he steps in when the commanding officer goes on leave, leading a humanitarian mission to local villages and sending photos home. “You look so handsome when you’re in charge of something :),” Jennie writes. “Honestly, it’s too bad you haven’t been in command all along.”

Utah. Salt Lake City International Airport. April 2008.

The plane door opens and a crowd erupts, moms and wives, sons and daughters waving flags and holding up posters Jennie helped them make. She forces a smile under a shock of red hair. As the soldiers of the 116th file onto the tarmac and shake the general’s hand, she hands them gift bags, and another woman gives each a yellow rose. There’s no rose for Brent today. She tries to laugh off the “curveball” he threw her by extending his deployment, but she’s reeling. 

Still, as a partner in Brent’s career, she remains encouraging. A chance encounter in a Green Zone lunchroom netted him a job offer as an adviser to a new Iraqi intelligence agency. Jennie sees a light, a higher reason to live without him. “You would be CRAZY not to pursue this,” she writes, “as only Brent Taylor knows how to pursue things!”

She’s not bad at that herself. Raised in North Ogden, she grew up, like Brent, serious beyond her years, committed to doing something important with her life — or at least pitching in wherever she happened to be. She took a break from college to serve a mission in Chile, where she became one of the first female missionaries ever sent to Easter Island, 2,340 miles off shore. 

She graduated from BYU in 2003, while she and Brent were dating, and started graduate school at Utah State while he was at basic training, earning a master’s in education. He was at ROTC camp when she told him she was pregnant with Lincoln. She’s raised the children mostly on her own at this point. And since he went to Iraq, she’s led the family support group, organizing events to help other military spouses tolerate the loneliness. She ships donated toys for Brent to hand out to street kids and care packages for the soldiers. Jennie is an efficacious whirlwind.

Still, the separation is wearing thin. Brent emails about weathering sandstorms, taking Arabic lessons, impressing an Iraqi general just by acting like a missionary and finally getting that promotion. She writes him about sick children, drama in the family and “developing our marriage.” When he finally comes home later that fall, he’s been gone for three of five years since their wedding. 

Before his final deployment in 2018, Maj. Brent Taylor poses with his wife, Jennie, and their seven children: Megan, Lincoln, Alexander, Jacob, Eleanor, Jonathan and Caroline. | Provided by the Taylor family

Utah. North Ogden. 2011. 

“I always wanted to be a soldier.” Brent leans over a keyboard as he types, probably at the glass desk in his home office, long fingers sprawling. He’s 33, or close to it, with a daughter, three sons and a lot on his mind. His life has run clear off the flowchart. Maybe this memoir is a way to recapture a feeling. Or to reinvent himself. He writes about playing army as a child, reading military sagas and biographies of important leaders and meeting with a recruiter in high school. “I wanted to show courage when other men would show fear, and I wanted to be a leader of men and to earn their trust and respect.”

After Baghdad, Brent got hired as an intelligence analyst at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., a block from the Smithsonian, less than a mile from the White House. He’d get a law degree at night school and work his way up, in a city where a hard-charger can meet important people and make his own fortune. In January 2009, he traveled ahead to find a place. Jennie was, if anything, even more excited about the move than he was. She lived for his success. Then he called her. Honey, I’m coming home. Just like that.

She doesn’t quite understand what changed his mind, and it won’t be the last time. But she believes in her husband and chooses to support him, even when he seems “either visionary or crazy.” They buy a modest six-bedroom house in North Ogden, where farms are turning into subdivisions, and settle into suburban life: two floors, tan brick siding, vinyl fences and a fourth child, Alexander, born in July 2009. She’s pretty good at regrouping.

Jennie adores Brent. When he’s away, he flirts cautiously in emails, and Skypes with her and the kids as often as he can. At home, he’s a dad who cuddles his daughter, sits a son on his lap to feed him, or lets them all climb him like a jungle gym. She respects that he’s a deep thinker who feels kinship with men he reads about — like Robert McNamara or Captain Moroni, a military leader from the Book of Mormon. He’s determined to live by their standards, citing “enlightened self-interest” as a good-faith motivation for getting ahead to do good in the world.

Maj. Brent Taylor was born to lead. His ambition helps explain what he was doing in Afghanistan in 2018 when he died in the line of duty. | Provided by the Taylor family

For now, he just needs traction. He partners with her brother in a venture to sell grease to the military. He runs for City Council on a whim in 2009 and wins a seat that November. In January, he slips away from the business, taking an active-duty assignment assessing security at major facilities like power plants, hospitals and sports venues. He starts grad school, pursuing a master’s in public administration at the University of Utah, and gets certified for the military police. His and Jennie’s fifth child, Jacob, is born in February 2011. 

Writing in his memoir, he recalls basic training, which he recounts in excruciating detail, from the cattle car to sadistic drill sergeants to the freezing ruck march that almost broke his spirit. He was the old soul who never got in trouble, who read “Lord of the Rings” and couldn’t sleep after his cohorts exchanged bawdy tales. “My ears were burning,” he writes. “Profanities and dirty language are as routine in the military as food and water.” 

He remembers working hard to connect with his soldiers at Q-West, who whined about the silly competitions he set up for the unit to pass time between convoys but laughed at the Chuck Norris jokes he told after each mission, inspired by graffiti in the latrine. A handful joined his company choir, but more showed up for the turkey bowl, where Brent caught a touchdown pass. He calls his 10 months with them “some of the best of my life.” Not because of some stilted bonding exercise, either. Quietly, he admits something key — something that might explain what happens next. “When I think of that time in Iraq, I look back with longing to return to it.” 

Brent misses war.

Afghanistan. Kunduz. March 2012. 

Joining a guard unit out of Washington state, Brent leads a mobile adviser team with three blue-collar sergeants, enlisted men who’ve seen years of combat. Grizzled, barrel-chested and deadly. At first, they don’t know what to make of him. How do you trust a man who won’t swear? “Sometimes you’ve got to drop a few f-bombs,” Staff Sgt. Sonny Bliss tells him. Brent passes up the advice, but he’s not aloof like most officers. He eats with the team, talks about home and apes their workouts. He wins them over by leading a foot patrol with the Afghan Border Police. 

“We went there to fight and kill the bad guys,” Bliss says. Brent was there “to build relationships and try to make it a better place,” loving the culture like he did in Brazil. Brent sets out to build rapport with the ABP commander who runs the region “like a mafia don.” After many hours of conversation and cups of chai tea, Brent’s unsavory ally invites him to go hunting. He’s in. The two plan joint operations to raid poppy fields, catch arms smugglers and interdict drugs. Bliss and his fellow sergeants are stoked. Brent’s security detail, a raw Ohio unit that follows the advisers everywhere they go, is not.

His plans go up in flames in February 2012, along with a Quran tossed on a trash heap by a U.S. soldier at Bagram Air Field. The country erupts in deadly riots and insider attacks. A grenade tossed into COP Fortitude, a nearby combat outpost, wounds seven and kills one. After an American massacres 16 civilians in Kandahar, locals pelt soldiers with rocks and vegetables, and a sniper pegs the bulletproof glass of a major’s vehicle. Brent can’t seem to get missions approved. He struggles to keep the faith. “I just don’t know if we are to win this war in any long-term sense,” he writes.

Still, Brent and his men manage to take a trip to a distant outpost, a rare adventure. The buildings look centuries old, and the location is so remote no American has ever gone there. Riding back, Staff Sgt. Jacob Torrez radios ahead, but the Ohio security detail doesn’t answer. He’s worried. As the road drops into the village, he expects to find the soldiers in the detail in a secure formation. Instead, they’re lazing on cots, shirtless staring at the sun. Brent worries they’ll offend the locals, but Torrez is simply livid. They could have gotten us all killed, he argues, pushing Brent to take the “sunbathing incident” up the chain. He doesn’t need much convincing.

Brent’s superior officers tell him to forget it, but he won’t let it go. So they give him an investigation he didn’t ask for, focused on him instead. He sends the colonel a long, breathless email, accusing him of poor leadership and a toxic command, then takes the matter to an inspector general. Yet he’s surprised by the blowback. His team is disbanded, Brent assigned to a desk. He eventually gets a three-hour lecture and a “counseling statement,” a black mark for riding in unsanctioned ABP pickup trucks and wearing an ADVISOR baseball cap instead of a helmet. And he’s sent home months early. 

“In disgrace,” he writes in his journal.

Utah. North Ogden. December 2014.

“Good morning! It’s Mayor Brent Taylor.” It’s 4 a.m. on Christmas Day. The first small storm of the season came through overnight. Like a modern-day Andy Griffith, he heads off the usual complaints with information and a smile, shooting his own video for Facebook. A truck waits over his shoulder, dusted with powder. “Just wanted to take you along and see how snow plowing works in our city.” He rides shotgun and interviews the driver, talking like a TV news anchor. At 35, this is his life now.

Even before he left Afghanistan, he sent Jennie a revamped PowerPoint rescheming their future. As for war, he wrote: “Know it is done.” This last tour was an ordeal for her, too, alone with a baby and three kids under 7 years old, with her parents and his parents all asking if their marriage was OK. “I just can’t do this ever again,” she thinks. His troubles follow him home, with a pending investigation and a career-ending officer evaluation report hanging over his head. Snapshots arrive in an email from Kunduz: the Ohio security detail, one with shirts off, another with middle fingers raised for his benefit. He’s never lived under a shadow like this before. How do you run for president with a stain on your record?

He’s already turned his eyes homeward. He started campaigning for mayor as soon as he landed, and won the part-time position in 2013. A year later, after completing his MPA, he convinced the City Council to make it a full-time job, at just $70,000 with no benefits. After his brother-in-law buys him out of the grease company, he joins another venture making smartphone apps, and starts a short-lived consulting firm, while diving back into school for a Ph.D. in international relations. The family moves to a 30-year-old home in the foothills, with plenty of room for the kids. The house needs work, but what does Brent have now if not time? 

But time ripples under his feet. On television, ISIS takes Mosul, then overruns Q-West. The Taliban take Kunduz. Jonathan, his sixth child, is born in December 2015. Finally, the inspector general’s investigation exonerates Brent, and the black marks vanish from his record.

As mayor to almost 20,000 people, he dons a yellow vest and livestreams with a crew sealing cracks in the road. He brings in a new grocery store, upgrades an outdoor amphitheater and even fights to reform the Utah Transit Authority, a flex toward state politics. And he starts to dream again. Maybe a Ph.D. can get him to the Pentagon — maybe even as secretary of defense, where he can fix what’s wrong with the military. 

But something else is percolating.

One day, Jennie finds a hole in the closet door of the home office. Another, she finds his statuette of Captain Moroni and a painting of Afghan mujahedeen staring at an empty square of carpet where the glass desk used to be. He’s broken a desk before, years ago, in basic training, when he and a buddy found themselves in a barracks basement with axes and a wooden bureau. “We took out our rage,” Brent wrote of that incident, deadpan. 

And something else. He’s still jockeying to climb the Army ranks. A new commanding officer suggests another deployment. Brent texts Jennie: “We need to talk.” Her response: “Where are you going?” She knows it’s not worth arguing. 

Later, people who love Brent will try to make sense of his decision to go back. Maybe it’s about money. With a seventh child on the way, his expenses aren’t going anywhere. And he’ll certainly make more in Afghanistan.

Or maybe Brent’s life is, like any life, a string of events and decisions that lead from one step to the next in spite of his highest hopes that things will turn out differently. Maybe he’s chosen this path in increments, never knowing this was where it led. Ambition, hubris and a constant drive to try something new form a volatile cocktail, no matter how noble a person’s intentions.

Or maybe he just wants to clear his name and prove what kind of man he is. “Sometimes when you have a bad taste you need to go back and right the wrong,” Bliss says, “get that taste out of your mouth.”

In November 2017, he wins reelection and welcomes his daughter, Caroline, into the world. Six weeks later, four patrol cars lead him past City Hall and every school in town, cherries rolling, sirens whooping for the Utah mayor, now a minor local celebrity, returning to war. Hundreds of children cheer and wave flags. A TV chopper films overhead. At the airport, TSA agents let the family pass to wait with him at the gate. He’s last to board. “I was crying pretty hard and could not even say anything to the stewardesses,” he writes. The pilot calls him to the cockpit so he can wave goodbye. 

Afghanistan. Kabul Military Training Center. October 2018. 

Civilian casualties are spiking as the Taliban increase complex suicide attacks and the U.S. ramps up airstrikes and pushes for peace talks. To a student of war, it echoes Vietnam. But to everyday Afghans, life is just tenuous; it’s said that some families send one son to train with the Americans, another to serve the Taliban, because nobody knows who’s going to be in charge next year. Quietly, the two sometimes collaborate, the U.S. providing air support when the Talibs fight ISIS. Most of the direct action comes on night raids, led here by the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Brent is thrilled to be attached to the Rangers — rock stars in this world — but let down by his assignment as an adviser to Afghan administrative officers. He’ll never venture beyond the training center, Camp Scorpion’s fenced residential compound or the ranges where the cadets practice. He’ll never get to show his mettle under fire or prove his salt. Maybe that’s why he takes up CrossFit, climbs nearby Gharib Ghar mountain every Friday and works out with the Khat Khas, the Afghan commando unit. And, he writes, he tries to expand his sphere of influence. Like the small-town politician he has become, he makes himself both visible and essential beyond his duties.

No adviser works longer hours. Most of the Guardian Angels — fresh-faced privates who provide a show of security when advisers leave Camp Scorpion — avoid him, but the new kid, Jessie Brown, often volunteers. Brent puts him in tough spots — like impromptu meetings in rooms with no outlet — but treats him with kindness. Brent gives driving lessons to his interpreter, Abdul Momin, who translates as he plans training sessions with his direct counterparts, greets other Afghan officers with hugs, schmoozes over lunch, sledgehammers a tractor tire in their gym, organizes barbecues and makes bets at the shooting range. He even reactivates an old program, taking several Afghan officers on a cultural exchange trip to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Everybody loves Maj. Taylor. 

But events unfolding 300 miles away will soon bring the war to Camp Scorpion. On Oct. 18, an Afghan bodyguard fires on several high-ranking Afghan and U.S. officials — including Gen. Scott Miller, head of all U.S. forces — after a meeting to plan election security. The attacker kills Gen. Abdul Raziq, the “Lion of Kandahar,” who ran that city like a crime boss; he was a powerful ally. But to Afghans, he was more: a beloved warlord, a legend who could not be killed without subterfuge. Many believe that the U.S. had him assassinated. Fearing reprisals, U.S. forces go on lockdown for two weeks.

While Brent chafes at the restrictions, a trainee named Afsar Khan noodles on conspiracy theories in the barracks across the road. From Bagh-Bala, an eclectic, upper-middle class neighborhood on a hillside above Kabul, Khan is angry. Days before Raziq’s killing, he triggers a red flag in a vetting interview, but the screeners are too overwhelmed to act on it. He starts a group called Lashkar-e Huzaifa with a single co-conspirator to drive out the infidels. Americans, he says, treat Afghans as slaves. They want justice for Raziq and the pain caused by night raids. For their first target, one name rises above the others. 

“He is the commander of Scorpion Camp,” Khan says in a video on his phone, recorded on a Saturday morning. “He is the main American commander for all the Afghanistan Special Forces,” orchestrating the slaughter of Muslims in all 34 provinces — preposterously exaggerating his target’s rank and responsibility. “I promise you guys that I will kill Maj. Taylor.”

Afghanistan. Camp Scorpion. November 3, 2018.

In the darkness before dawn, he slides from his bed to his knees like every morning. The wooden floor of his CHU pushes back on his bad knee and his injured back groans, but Brent, at 39, has plenty to pray for. Jennie and the kids. His town. His dreams. And the Afghan people he’s grown to love. Birthday cards and photos sing of home from the paneled wall, but the war calls him outside. He pulls on his uniform, laces his boots and straps on his armor, patting a ceramic front plate. 

He meets Jessie at “the box,” a shed where the Guardian Angels wait for duty, and picks up Momin, the interpreter, at the “Best Buy,” a bazaar that sells watches and trinkets. The passenger door of their SUV won’t open from the inside so Jessie, feeling uneasy, rides in back. Momin wonders aloud if today is the best day for a ruck march. On the Afghan side, they find all the top officers are busy or running errands in town. Still, about 40 trainees wait at the meetup. It’s not the biggest turnout, but it’s not bad.

Afsar Khan stands among them, fingers dancing on the handle of his M4. 

The crowd snakes along dirt roads, past low hills and firing ranges backed up against the Ghar. It’s more a social event than a tactical exercise. Friends chatter or take group selfies. Brent stays in the lead, as sweat breaks and blisters form, grinning. He loves doing soldier stuff. Jessie frets over the Afghans taking tea out here for no apparent reason, but Brent collects such moments. If he had time, he’d stop to sip and talk for as long as they’d have him. 


A burst of gunshots about 10 feet back. One grazes Jessie’s lumbar. He spins and returns fire in the direction of the shooter, as Brent falls beside him. Blood is everywhere. 

Calling for gauze, Jessie wraps it around Brent’s head. Momin calls a translator back at the camp for help. 

Brent looks like he’s trying to breathe or speak. But for once, it falls on somebody else to make things right.

They lift him onto a truck, beside a dead body. They don’t know it yet, but the body belongs to Khan, chased down by his fellow commandos and executed by an Afghan officer. 

“Floor it,” Jessie shouts. The truck rumbles down the road and the bodies slump together, legs and fates intertwined. Each man loved his country enough to die for it; neither doubted that God was with him. As Momin sobs, as Jessie yells and bangs on the cab, the truck plows through the barricade into Camp Scorpion, carrying both martyr and martyred onto U.S. soil.

It’s too late. Maybe it’s been too late all along. His dreams were too big, his ambitions too grand for a man not born into money, who lacks the political advantages of an Ivy League education. Brent Taylor was forever rushing to close the gap. Now, that weight is lifted, or at least passed along.

Officers look on as Maj. Brent Taylor’s body arrives at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Nov. 6, 2018. | Mark Makela/Getty Images News via Getty Images

Utah. North Ogden. February 2021.

In the shed, Jennie rifles through the detritus of her late husband’s life. “I was married to the man for 15 years and I feel like I’ve come to know him better in the last two since he died than ever before,” she says. “On a deeper level.”

She hefts a flag, a proper triangle encased in wood and glass. “What do I do with seven of these,” she says, grimacing at the weight. One for each child, presented at the funeral as the governor looked on, now scattered among plastic bins and wooden crates. “I guess we’ll have a museum someday.” She almost laughs, then closes the lids and bounces down a rickety ladder. Three trampolines ride out the winter across a wide lawn strewn with toys. Beyond a wood fence, two garden plots languish. Brent loved the hard work of preparing the soil to plant “ridiculous quantities” of peaches and beans and corn for canning later, but his attention tended to drift in between. Now the ground lies fallow.

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Jennie has become a public figure in her own right, accustomed to the podium, from the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base to the Provo Freedom Festival, local TV and podcast interviews. She even gave a TED Talk. In January 2020, she was named civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for Utah, the highest civilian post in the National Guard. “I feel like I’ve walked into my husband’s boots,” she says. If she ever runs for office, he’s given her a platform. Still, she’s always reminding herself to get home and do the dishes.

Now Megan, 15, is boiling spaghetti for dinner and the nanny is leaving for the day. There’s a new deck behind the house and the kitchen was finally remodeled after flooding while Brent was on his last tour. Somebody calls, and Jennie asks them to pick up another daughter from dance class. Gently, she packs Brent’s challenger coins and medals back into their box, pats his dress blues and silently zips them away. 

Additional reporting by Dodge Billingsley and Jeff Parrott

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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