Monticello • If Aaron Butler were to give his own eulogy, his sister said, it would have been simple: “I came. I lived. I killed bad guys. I died.”
But Shannon Young had much more than that to say about her kid brother at his funeral here on Saturday. She sketched out the 27 years of a championship athlete, an avid outdoorsman, a fast learner, a loving brother — and a man who accomplished his lifelong dream becoming an elite American soldier.
“Bravery was a quality rooted deep inside him,” Young said.
“He showed us how to live,” added his brother Shane Butler.
More than 1,000 people gathered in this small southern Utah town Saturday for the funeral service of Staff Sgt. Butler, the first Utahn killed in combat since 2013. They packed into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake center, overflowing the chapel, the basketball court and other rooms where the service was streamed live.
On Aug. 16, Butler and his teammates in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group of the Utah National Guard were clearing a building in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, searching for Islamic State loyalists. But the structure had been booby-trapped, and exploded, killing Butler and injuring his 11 teammates.
Dozens of Butler’s fellow Green Berets — and one of his teammates, who had been at the scene of the explosion — were in attendance. Staff Sgt. Trevor Bell accompanied his comrade’s remains from Afghanistan to the U.S., spending the past few days in Monticello.
At the service, Bell recalled a teammate who wasn’t afraid to stand up to his superiors when he felt something was wrong. He told of a guy who would gather his fellow soldiers around to entertain them with stories of his life growing up in Monticello, or tales of serving as a Mormon missionary in Ghana.
“You could sense he was different — in all the best ways possible,” Bell said, beginning to tear up. “We lost an incredible man, teammate, friend.”
Another of his Special Forces teammates told Butler’s sister that he had “fought with everything he had to the very end.”
“Your brother was a warrior,” the teammate told Young. “Some guys try to be alpha males — but Aaron naturally was one.”
Young said Butler could seem a little wild as a teenager. He was already obsessed with the military and was known to sometimes ask family members: “Anyone want to go blow something up?”
Then there was Butler’s rugged work ethic, Young said. He always stayed after wrestling practice to work out or mentor his teammates. It paid off in the form of four state wrestling titles — making him one of only a handful of Utahns to ever accomplish the feat. Butler also picked up new skills quickly, Young said, including mastering a second language, a requirement to join the Special Forces.
Each of Butler’s brothers urged the crowd to live by his example — to say less and do more, Quinn Butler said, and to be “relentless” in the pursuit of your goals, as Chad Butler put it.
“He has been a protector his entire life,” said Butler’s only younger sibling, Adam Butler. “He kept me safe when I was small.”
Alexandria Seagroves, Butler’s fiancee, read a poem he wrote for her. For years his sole focus in life had been to join the Green Berets, he said. Then he met her — and his perspective on life suddenly shifted. Young said Seagroves had brought out her brother’s “soft and tender side,” which the family had never seen before.
“I feel like I’ve lost the love of my life,” Seagroves said, almost whispering as she choked up. “But Aaron will live through me. I know I’ll see him again.”
Randy Butler, Aaron’s father, said the past few days have been the hardest of his life. But the support of the tight-knit community — including more than 100 people who stopped by the Butler home the day after Aaron was killed to offer condolences and food — have buoyed his spirits. The family had also received cards and other messages from around the country, he said, thanking them for raising such a fine young man.
“Thank you for your love,” Randy Butler said. “I will be eternally grateful.”
The crowd, along with Butler’s remains, eventually moved several blocks down the road, to Monticello City Cemetery. Rows of Green Berets stood near the gravesite, as a half-mast flag flapped nearby under blue skies and a stiff breeze. As the ceremony ended, Butler’s mother and sister flanked a sobbing Seagroves, working to comfort her, and themselves.
The funeral capped several days of mourning and celebrating Butler’s life in Monticello. On Thursday, hundreds of residents stood on Main Street and waved American flags as his remains arrived at Monticello City Airport and were driven to a mortuary in Blanding. Gov. Gary Herbert visited the family.
Meanwhile, yellow ribbons were tied to trees and light posts in both cities, and many businesses placed signs in their windows thanking Butler for his service.
Late Saturday afternoon, a long day of stories and ceremony finished, the Butler family issued a statement: ”The family of Staff Sgt. Aaron Butler expresses their deep gratitude for the remarkable outpouring of love and support from friends, community, the military, the state of Utah and the American people. It has been a wonderful tribute to Aaron, his life and his service.”
In central Monticello, there is a veteran’s memorial, with a few dozen names of San Juan County soldiers killed in combat over the decades. In the lower right hand corner are the four San Juan residents killed since the Sept. 11 attacks: Quinn Keith, Nathan Winder, James Thode and Jason Workman. Soon, Butler’s name will be carved into the monument.
“Aaron’s death,” his sister said, “makes us acutely aware that the war on terror lives on.”