NORTH OGDEN — As her kids clamor in and out of the kitchen, Jennie Taylor, attending to her youngest child, Caroline, describes what has been a hectic, sad, monumental year.
Since the death of her husband Brent Taylor on Nov. 3, 2018, while serving with the Utah Army National Guard in Afghanistan, the family has traveled to Disneyland. Jennie Taylor attended President Donald Trump's State of the Union address last February. She's launched scholarship initiatives aimed at honoring her late husband and is leading efforts to build a monument to honor Gold Star families, survivors of U.S. service members who die during their service.
"We've had an incredible year in terms of assistance from the community. We've met new people. We've traveled," Jennie Taylor said, sitting on a stool at the island in the middle of the kitchen in her North Ogden home.
Then comes the wrinkle in everything. A big one.
"If you take out the one gaping detail, it's an awesome year," she said, referencing her husband's death. "Then you just have that gaping detail that underlies everything."
Sunday marks one year since Brent Taylor, on leave at the time as North Ogden's mayor, died while nearing the end of a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. He served as a major in the National Guard.
Jennie Taylor and the couple's children, four boys and three girls ages 14 down to 1 (almost 2), are moving forward, she said. But it's tough. There are stops and starts. Every day there are moments of laughter, of joy, she said. But the tears are there as well, every day.
"I feel like I walk around with a smile on my face and a pit in my stomach and both are 100% real. One's not masking the other," she said.
And central in her efforts has been trying to honor the legacy of her husband, his service to the country and community. She's also vocal about supporting U.S. military service members overall along with Gold Star families. Her husband is hardly the only person to have died in service of the country, she notes. And at any rate, it's not death that defines heroism.
"I don't think it’s taking the bullet that makes you the hero. It’s the willingness to put on the uniform when you might take a bullet every day that makes you a hero, and that's true of all of our men and women in any uniform, any generation of time, Vietnam, Cold War, World War I or II, Korea," she said. "I feel Brent would want that message to be conveyed, strongly, that his being shot in Afghanistan did not make him a good American soldier. His being willing to serve our country and spread freedom around the world is what made him a good American soldier.”
'GOING TO CHANGE THE WORLD'
They met as students at Brigham Young University. She was a student teacher, on her way to becoming a high school history instructor. He was studying political science. Both, she said, shared an abiding patriotism and love for the country.
They later married and planned their future. She would stop teaching and care for the kids, they agreed. He would be the breadwinner, pursue military service, public service. That's how it went, and things were humming along. Brent Taylor won a term on the North Ogden City Council in 2009 and followed that by winning election as the city's mayor in 2013 and then, in 2017, reelection.
He also served on the Utah Transit Authority Board of Trustees, taking the oversight position in 2017, he had said, with reform in mind. He had to step down from the post to deploy to Afghanistan, his fourth overseas deployment as a guardsman. He pushed for review of the three-commission form of government in Weber County, the focus of a ballot question, Proposition 3, in Tuesday's elections.
"He was invincible. He had things to do. We thought he’d be governor one day. He was going to change the world and we were just getting started," Jennie Taylor said.
Of course he wasn't invincible, shot and killed by an apparent rogue member of the Afghani special forces contingent he was helping train, according to military officials. The news shocked many in North Ogden, across Utah and around the country, and it forced his widow to abruptly take on leadership of the family. It also forced her to evaluate things, to try to make sense of everything. Answers soon started coming — she remembers writing her first public comments during a stay at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, awaiting the return of his body to the United States.
“Brent may have died on Afghan soil but he died for the success of freedom and democracy in both our countries,” she said in her remarks at Dover, according to the Associated Press.
She's repeated the deeply patriotic message, that his death, while immeasurably hard and heartbreaking, had a greater purpose — helping affirm U.S. ideals, more specifically, the ideal of freedom. It aligns with the vision for their future they had agreed upon after marrying.
"It’s a heartache. It’s a gut ache. It's wrenching and terrible and tragic and all of the words you can use," she said. "But I can’t think of a more honorable position to be in than to say our family has helped pay the price of freedom for America and the world. I can’t think of anything."
In his love of the country, he felt connected to the Founding Fathers, people like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Jennie Taylor's confident, she continued, that her husband "feels it an honor to have laid down his life for his country."
Jennie Wilson gets survivors benefits stemming from her husband's death. She and her kids have received an outpouring of support, financial and otherwise, from around the community, state and country. It's enough to allow her to keep on being a stay-at-home mom as her kids grow, for which she feels blessed.
Still, there are moments of intense sadness.
There's the chaos of keeping tabs on seven kids, compounded by the pain of the loss of their father. Dad was always the fun one while she was the worrier, and now she somehow has to reconcile and combine the roles. "It's enough to just try and get dinner and dishes done every day, and already we're behind on that," she said.
There's a measure of backlash, sometimes below the radar, related to her husband's tenure as mayor. He spearheaded efforts to build a new amphitheater in Barker Park, which, though largely complete, continues to be a sore point for some who say it's disruptive to the neighborhood where it sits. The grumbling started around the time Brent Taylor deployed to Afghanistan and simmers on.
"I try not to take it personally. I try not to take the accusations personally," she said.
But she soldiers on.
She's pushing for donations to the Major Brent Taylor Leadership Legacy Foundation, to fund scholarships to Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, where Brent Taylor pursued graduate studies. She's helping with creation of a memorial in the city meant to honor Gold Star families. More recently, she's dipped her toes into politics. She's publicly calling for passage of Proposition 3, the measure to study changing the county government format, which her husband had sought. She endorsed Lynn Satterthwaite in his bid for mayor of North Ogden against S. Neal Berube in Tuesday's voting.
The ups and downs will continue. After what's been a very public year for her, taking part in activities meant to honor her husband and more, though, Jennie is hoping the coming year will be a bit more subdued, maybe a bit more private. Either way, she somehow goes with the flow.
For now, the kids are clamoring, there's a Halloween activity looming and one of her son's hair needs combing before they can go.
"We just keep rolling," she said.