Gold Star Widow Jennie Taylor Recalls the Day She Was Notified Her Husband Had Been Killed

by | May 25, 2020

On Memorial Day, Americans, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, honor the men and women who have died while serving in the military. On Nov. 3, 2018, Maj. Brent Taylor was killed while deployed in Afghanistan during a ruck march—the military equivalent of a hike. He was the victim of an inside attack. On this week’s episode of All In, Jennie Taylor, Brent’s wife and the mother of their seven children, recalled details of the horrific day.

Read an excerpt from their conversation below or click here to listen to the whole episode. You can also read a full transcript of the podcast here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. 

Morgan Jones: Well, you have a story that is very different from any other story that we've ever had told on this podcast, and, I would argue, so incredibly rare to anyone and their life experience. Let's start out. Can you walk us through what November 3, 2018, was like for you?

Jennie Taylor: Yeah. So, you know, first I'll just throw in there—my story might be different on the details, but the longer I live, and especially the more I talk with people who are facing their own stories, I think our stories are a lot more similar than we think. And those details take different shape, but we're all kind of going through this mortal journey with hopes and dreams that do or don't work out, and ups and downs, and that's exactly what November 3 was.

The funny thing is, it was a Saturday morning. It was right after my birthday—I'm a Halloween baby—and I wasn't even home. I was in Provo staying at a rental condo off-campus near BYU. My college roommates and I had met as college freshmen 20 years ago, and we thought it would be so fun to get together, to catch up, to leave the kids home and just have, you know, this really quick one-night girlfriends’ getaway. So, my husband was in Afghanistan. I have seven young children. My baby at the time was not even one. She had recently been weaned from nursing and my mom and mother-in-law talked me into just getting away for a minute. And so, Friday night I went to Provo [and] met up with my girlfriends. We stayed up way too late talking and catching up.

Saturday morning, I woke up early—which, for any mom that's ever gotten away from her kids, that's really annoying, because you want to wake up not early when your kids are not there to wake you up. I woke up early and made a conscious decision. I remember thinking, "I could roll back over and go to bed, or I think I'm gonna get up and enjoy some quiet for a minute by myself." I got out my scriptures, I got out my journal, and I just kind of started gathering some of my thoughts. My husband had been deployed for 10 months, and with those seven kids at home, our house had flooded. We'd had to move out and remodel the whole thing. It had been a really, really difficult year for me. And I felt like I never had enough time to think, let alone catch up with my thoughts. And so, I took advantage that beautiful morning of this chance to kind of get in the zone and just have this quiet time.

It was about nine in the morning after I'd finished some of this, and my phone rang. And it was my mom, who was home with my kids. Now remember, she's the one that really talked me into getting away. She told me I needed a break. And I was really surprised. [When] she called I thought, "Surely somebody's broken an arm or something, she's not just going to call to say good morning," and I picked up the phone, said, "Hi, mom." She said, "Jenny, wherever you are, you might want to hit your knees. There are two military officers here [at] the door, and they won't tell me anything. They said they can only talk to you."

And I will tell you, that whole beautiful moment of some quiet peace and getting the Spirit together in the morning just fell to the pit of my stomach. I mean, I've been a military wife for 15 years, and anybody who's ever seen a Hollywood movie knows soldiers don't knock on your door to say hi. And so I'm sitting here thinking, just total shock running through my body, and my mom puts them on the phone. And I tell them that I'm in Provo, I'm not even home. I'm an hour and a half away. I don't even have a car with me because I actually took public transit down to meet up with my friends and they picked me up. And I just told him, I said, "I can't wait to get on public transit two hours from now and come back for you to tell me what you need to tell me." They said, "Ma'am, we understand but protocol is we have to tell you in person."

So, we decided we would meet in the middle. There was one other of my roommates who was already awake that morning and she and I jumped in her car. I simply said to her, "Brent might be dead. I need a ride." And from that moment forward, it was just such an intense day. And during the drive from Provo to Draper, I had my Book of Mormon. I had a notebook and I had a pen. Anybody who knows me knows I'm a really verbal processor. I talk to think and I write to think, and I just began writing furiously in my notebook, and I told my girlfriend, with all due respect, I said, "I need you to just be quiet. I need to think. I need to be able to talk out loud. Please don't say anything." I remember processing every thought. I wrote down in my notebook, you know, "Maybe he's sick, maybe he's injured. Maybe he's been medically evacuated to Germany." And then my first thought was, "I don't even have an active passport. What if I can't go see him? What if he's paralyzed? What if I have to be the breadwinner for the rest of our lives? What if I have to take care of him?" You know, every thought in my mind, trying really hard not to let myself think, "What if he's dead?" Until finally, toward the end of my scribblings on the drive, I wrote down with great clarity what I felt the Lord told me and I wrote, "If Brent is dead, I cannot fall apart. The kids matter too much." And that's kind of the end of that entry in my notebook.

We [arrived]. The state chaplain comes in. He escorts us to a conference room. I remember walking through it felt like dozens of doors. I mean, we just walked through the door, walked through another door, another door. Soldiers were standing at attention at each door, but nobody would look me in the eye. And with each step I took, the weight, meaning the heaviness of the moment, got more and more certain that he must be dead. Because if he were injured, surely it wouldn't be this somber. And we entered the conference room. The state chaplain is an older gentleman, a member of our faith, and he was there with a younger chaplain guarding that door, the final door, and they offered to give me a blessing, which of course I accepted quite readily. And the younger chaplain gave me the blessing and was the voice of that.

In the blessing, he started to bless me to be able to deal with these very significant changes in my life, at which point the older chaplain stopped him, you know, with their hands still on my head, kind of looked at him and said, "Shh. She doesn't know yet.". . . It just felt like every moment was making it more and more and more certain that I already knew what nobody could tell me until we were face to face.

So, by the time those army officers arrived from my house and got to the Draper headquarters building for the Utah National Guard, I sat down. They sat down next to me. And then they begin to say what they are instructed to say, and it's quite scripted that they regret to inform me that my husband, Major Brent Taylor, had been killed that morning while on a ruck march, which is basically an army term for a hike in Afghanistan. They told me it was an inside attack. They told me that he was the only one killed. And really, after that, I can't tell you anything else they said. I have no idea. It was just a blur. I think I went into total shock.

I remember pacing the room. I remember feeling like I was going to pull the hair right out of my head just from running my fingers through my hair so much. I hadn't eaten anything. Remember, I'd woken up early and had a couple hours of just this quiet Zen meditation and writing and reading my scriptures. I began to get very weak. I remember asking them for some juice because I needed sugar. And they brought me in a juice box, like a little child's juice box with a straw. And the irony of the moment hit me because I thought, "I feel like I'm drinking out of a fire hydrant, and you've given me this teeny straw to try to process everything."

And so, we went through a lot of very pragmatic things—the process of how it will work. They told me I'd have 24 hours between that moment of notification and when they would release his name to the public. They told me there'd be a press conference. They talked a little bit about going to Dover. We tried to reach Brent's parents—they had their own notification team, and they were to be informed seconds after me, as Brent's next of kin. And once his parents had been notified in person, the army officers and I got in the car and drove north to my house to tell my seven children. And so they had, of course, been home with my mom, and as soon as my mom got off the phone—you know she had been there when the officers knocked on the door—she called my sister, and they immediately started driving south.

They left my kids home with Grandpa. So when we got home a couple of hours later, Grandpa had just taken the kids to McDonald's to go get Happy Meals and play in the playground. They got home right about as I pulled up, and I pulled up with two army officers in their full-dress uniforms, hats and all. And my teenage daughter, who's our oldest, got out of the car with Grandpa, she looked at me, and she just said, "Mom, no." And she kind of knew what I had already known before anybody told me or told her officially. There was just the weight of the moment.

So the officers came in. We gathered all the children and they told them the same thing they told me. That was a difficult decision to make, for how to tell them, but I felt, for the dignity of the moment, I wanted them to have the official notification from the United States Army. I wanted them to hear what I had heard. I think as they look back, they'll see the dignity and respect with which that terrible notification is treated. So the officers told them, and I immediately reached for all of them and felt so overwhelmed because I have two arms, and I have seven kids, and my oldest was only 13—she'd just barely turned 13. My little baby was not yet even one. Our youngest child's first birthday was two days after we buried Brent. So to say I felt overwhelmed that Saturday morning is, you know, almost a comical understatement.

But the day after that went very . . . mechanically. Family started to come, friends started to come, word started to get out. The army had promised me 24 hours of privacy, but the fact of the matter is, when something like that happens, people start to know. My husband was the mayor of our hometown of almost 20,000 people. I think he's very well-respected and beloved of many of our residents. He and I know a lot of people in this town. I'm from here, and so I think probably within an hour, the news was fairly well known, and the public press conference the next day was almost just a formality at that point. So we spent the rest of November 3 with people flooding our home, well-wishers coming, people coming and crying with us and bringing flowers and so much food. You know, when someone dies, we show up with food because we don't know what else to do.

Priesthood leaders came, my grandfather came, he gave me a blessing. My stake president came and assured me that my best days were yet to come, that life would still be beautiful and happy—just so many emotions that day. And then as the day went on down and it got dark, and people went home, and everybody asked what I wanted to do overnight, did I want to go stay somewhere, did I want someone to come stay with us, and I just told them I wanted to be home with my children. My kids had gone with various cousins and aunts and uncles to get away from the public hoopla and to be able to just try to feel a little normal for a minute. And the kids all came home. And then, I remember we drove down to the local gas station, because on our main street in North Ogden City, we have banners up of our various military members—not just Brent, but anyone from the area who would like to have a banner hanging that shows their military picture and what branch of the service they're in. Well, my husband's banner sits right in front of the local gas station. And several people had mentioned that they basically visited his flag and kind of set up a little bit of a vigil there, a little memorial site.

So I think it was close to midnight. I took all seven of my kids in our big van down to the gas station. We took a picture in front of his banner with flags and flowers all over it, and then we went inside and I let everybody get a treat. Because it just seemed like there was nothing else to do than to say, "You know, what? It's midnight and you're at the gas station, go get a Slurpee, go get Starbursts, what do you want?" And then we went home for one of the longest, worst nights of my life. But we chose to all just be home together that night. I wanted my kids here with me, I wanted to be here with them, and I didn't really want the rest of the world with us for a few minutes. I felt like we just needed some space. So that's November 3, in a not very fast nutshell. But it was quite a day.

You know, [I had] so many emotions that I'm sure I'm skipping over many, many things. And other people who visited that day would be able to maybe lend their viewpoint of what happened. One thing, I think, looking back—I wish we'd had a recorder going, like an audio recorder in the room, as so many people came and expressed their love for Brent, their admiration, their sorrow that he's gone. There were a lot of tears, but there were also a lot of really happy memories being shared. A lot of laughter and a lot of admiration for who he is and what kind of life he'd lived. And I wish we'd have recorded that. I mean, you don't think of that, when someone dies, to hit play on the recorder. But I wish we had, because of the great celebration of this man's life that began to pour in from family, from friends and from perfect strangers. So as much as it was a very heavy, horrible, awful day, I remember going to bed thinking, "We laughed a lot today. We laughed a lot today through the tears." And I think that's a great gift from Heavenly Father. And I think that's what Brent would want us to do. He was always much more lighthearted and easygoing than I am. I'm the worrier in the family. I don't know if it's just mom territory or what, but I'm a really good worrier. And I remember even right away recognizing, it's almost as if I inherited his sense of humor, and his positive attitude. Almost immediately. It's as if it came to me as an inheritance so that I could have help in bearing the burden of the grief of losing him and missing him.

Lead Image: Steve Griffin, Deseret News
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