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Bountiful man killed in Iraq
Ellis Nelson knew that, one day, two soldiers in dress uniform might meet him as they did early Monday afternoon. In Iraq, where his son had been for nearly a year, death comes in many ways: from sniper shootings, from roadside bombings, from rocket attacks. Military parents often harbor such unnerving thoughts about the dangers of war overseas.
Yet frequently -- more than a fifth of the time, according to Defense Department numbers -- death in Iraq comes much the same way as death back home, in unexpected accidents on otherwise routine days.
So it appears to have come for Spc. Lex Nelson, who died after falling from a guard tower at Forward Operating Base Remagen, near Tikrit, on Monday.
Few other details were immediately made available to Nelson's family, but military officials called the incident "nonhostile."
In that aspect, it was no less jarring or devastating. And for Ellis Nelson -- who was expecting his 21-year-old son's homecoming within weeks -- no less heroic.
"He was dedicated," Nelson said, a copy of his son's last e-mail shaking in his hands. "He always looked for good in what was happening. He believed in freedom."
In the e-mail, the Granite High School graduate wrote of plans to leave Tikrit on a Dec. 29 convoy. He expected to be back in the United States a day or two after New Year's.
"As all things go, home sweet home is really home sweet home," he wrote. "All things considered, life is good . . ."
He signed the letter "Stones," a nickname given to him by one of his 14 brothers and sisters -- and which stuck with all the rest.
Many of those siblings -- now spread across several states -- had arrived at Ellis Nelson's Bountiful home by Tuesday evening to help their father cope with a yet another tragedy.
They had made the same trip in June when Ellis Nelson's wife -- Lex Nelson's stepmother -- passed away.
Armed with a message from the American Red Cross and determined to make it home for the funeral, Lex Nelson had taken emergency leave so that he could be by his father's side on that day.
"It was just good to have him home, then," Nelson said of the last moments he shared with his son, painful as it was to have to bury a second spouse -- his first wife, Lex Nelson's mother, passed away 10 years ago.
"He had two mothers waiting for him," said Maxine Hepworth-Taylor, Lex Nelson's aunt. "You know, this family has gone through death before, and so I guess I was surprised at how much it still hurts."
Though comforted by faith, Hepworth-Taylor sobs at the loss and its seemingly vagarious nature.
"But this family responds to tragedy well," she said. "We become stronger."
And in their plight, they are not alone -- for service in the military comes with certain dangers above those posed by bullets and bombs.
The first Utahn killed during major combat operations in Iraq, Staff Sgt. James Cawley, was crushed by a coalition Humvee during the initial push to Baghdad. Utah has lost at least six other service members in nonhostile incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and at least one, in the past year, who was preparing for battle while in the United States.
The military honors such victims with no less tribute than any other soldier's death. And their families mourn them no less.
"It takes you by surprise every bit as much," said Amy Burleson.
Burleson's brother, Philip Christensen, a graduate of Brighton High School, was killed April 19 when his M113 Armored Personnel Carrier overturned during a training operation in Fort Riley, Kan. He had recently returned from a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq.
"You cannot ever expect such a thing to happen," Burleson said. "And you can never forget. I still think about him every day and I cry almost every day. It makes it no easier to know that it was simply an accident."
Services for Lex Nelson will be scheduled in the upcoming days.