Utah governor extols National Guard staff sergeant killed in booby-trapped Afghanistan building as ‘one of Utah’s best’

(Photo courtesy of Butler family) Aaron Butler

Draper • The 27-year-old Utah Special Forces soldier killed Wednesday fighting Islamic State group loyalists in Afghanistan had always dreamed of joining the military, his family said.

Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler, of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, was a four-time state wrestling champion who served a Mormon mission in Ghana after graduating from Monticello High School in 2008. He later became a Green Beret — one of only four soldiers who graduated with honors from the elite Army special forces qualification course in 2016, family members said in a Thursday statement.

“Aaron was absolutely fearless, selfless, courageous and relentless,” said his father, Randy Butler.

Aaron Butler and 11 of his fellow Utah Army National Guard members were clearing a building in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday — working alongside the Afghan army to root out extremists — when the structure exploded. The booby trap killed Butler and injured the rest of the team, Gov. Gary Herbert said at a Thursday morning news conference at the Utah National Guard headquarters in Draper.

The governor’s office released a statement Thursday night, saying he and his wife, Jeanette Herbert, ”join all Utahns in grieving for him and honoring his sacrifice — the ultimate sacrifice,” calling Butler ”one of Utah’s best.”

Names and conditions of the other Utah Guard members hurt in the blast were not released Thursday; Herbert said additional information would come from the Department of Defense. The governor said he was calling the families of the soldiers Thursday, telling them “of our concern, our support and our condolences.” He ordered Utah and U.S. flags to be at half staff Friday.

The 12-member Utah National Guard team is made of nine Utahns. The other three hail from states adjacent to Utah and fly to the Beehive State to train and when they deploy, Utah Guard spokeswoman Ileen Kennedy said.

In recent years, the elite Utah-based 19th Special Forces Group has deployed to Afghanistan many times to fight alongside that country’s military. In January 2016, a unit from the group, based at Camp Williams in Bluffdale, was in a battle in which a soldier from Washington was killed.

“It is a reminder to all of us that the war on terror continues,” Herbert said of Butler’s death. “We have not had a [Utah Guard] fatality since 2010, so we think things are maybe not as severe as they really are. Our men and women are serving in very difficult places throughout the world.”

The Utah team had been working alongside the Afghan army on a ground mission in Nangarhar Province, working to push out the Islamic State affiliate in the region, known as Khorosan, or ISIS-K, officials said. 

Kennedy said Thursday she was unsure, and could not find out, if the wounded were still being treated in Afghanistan or if they had been moved elsewhere. 

“The Army values are ‘Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage,’” the Butler family wrote in their statement. “Aaron Butler personified those values in everything he said and did.”

The statement from Aaron Butler’s parents and seven siblings noted that while his ”life that was all too brief, our dear son and brother made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.”

Bill Boyle, the local newspaper editor and a close friend and neighbor of the family, said Butler joined the Utah Guard while still in high school. And he was a ”legendary” wrestler, Boyle said, so much so that many of his competitors quickly realized ”no one could touch him.” 

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Monticello's Aaron Butler won the 2008 state title.

Boyle recalled Butler seriously injuring his leg during his junior year. Butler wouldn’t give in. Still working through his rehabilitation, he hobbled through the championship match on just one strong leg and won yet another state title.

”There are lots of stories of his strength, and determination, and ability to fight through all kind of obstacles to reach his goal,” Boyle said.

Members of Utah’s congressional delegation sent out statements and tweets supporting Butler and his comrades Thursday, all saying they were praying and thinking of the family, and were grateful for the sacrifice the soldiers made. Rep. Chris Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, tweeted that the explosion was a “reminder that we live in a dangerous world.”

Meanwhile, residents of Monticello, population 2,200, mourned the loss of one of their own. A KUTV reporter tweeted a picture of neighbors placing American flags on the Butler’s front lawn, and a candlelight vigil was planned Thursday night.

Boyle helped the family write a statement in the morning, wrote his own news story about the death, then fielded calls from reporters around the state as the family’s spokesman.

“Our hearts are broken. We are devastated,” the San Juan County commissioners said in a statement.

“Always with us never forgotten. We love you, Aaron!” Butler‘s high school wresting team, the Buckaroos, wrote on Facebook.

The Utah National Guard has more than 130 members operating in the Central Command region, which includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other countries in the Middle East, northern Africa and Asia, said Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard. That’s out of a total of 193 Utah Guard soldiers and airmen deployed abroad.

The last Utah National Guard soldier to be killed in action was Sgt. 1st Class James Thode, a 45-year-old police sergeant from Farmington, N.M., who died in December 2010 from a roadside bomb. His unit was clearing land mines in Afghanistan’s Khowst province.

The last time any Utah service member was killed in combat was in 2013, when 21-year-old Army medic Pfc. Cody Towse, of Salem, became the victim of an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Eleven U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan this year, up from 10 in 2016.

The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan is known as ISIS-K, and is a branch of the terrorist organization’s primary base in Iraq and Syria. Afghan and U.S. forces launched a major offensive against ISIS-K in March, according to the Department of Defense. In April and July, American airstrikes — including the so-called mother of all bombs — killed several of the group’s leaders.

About 8,400 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan after nearly 16 years there. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were scheduled to discuss strategy on the war in Afghanistan with their national security team at Camp David in Maryland on Friday. The strategy could include sending roughly 3,800 more troops to help the Afghan army, which has struggled to turn back Taliban and Islamic State fighters on their own, according to the Associated Press.

“We appreciate the patriotism, the courage of our men and women in uniform,” Herbert said. “And it’s something we as Utahns ought not to forget, and always remember, [to] keep them all in our prayers for their safety and well-being.”

Butler’s body is being flown to Dover, Md. Plans are being made for a funeral.

“Aaron was a strength to us, an inspiration to those around him, and a joy to have in our family,” his family wrote.