While other families prepared for last year’s holiday season, the Taylor family was in mourning. Maj. Brent Taylor, a soldier with the Utah Army National Guard, was killed in an alleged insider attack in Afghanistan early November 2018. He was also the mayor of North Ogden, Utah, father of seven children and husband to Jennie. His loss captured global attention — including that of Frank Siller, a man who understood all too well the pain of losing a loved one in service.
Siller is the chief executive officer of the Tunnel to Towers Foundation — a nonprofit organization created to honor his brother, Stephen Siller, a New York City firefighter who died on Sept. 11. Stephen Siller, the youngest of seven siblings, was finishing his shift when the attacks occurred on that day in 2001. Strapped with 60 lbs. of gear on his back, he ran from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the twin towers. He lost his life that day.
The Siller family knew they wanted to honor Stephen’s life and sacrifice, but weren’t quite sure how. By the end of that year, though, a foundation would bear his name, Frank Siller says.
“To be quite honest with you, we didn’t know how big this foundation was going to turn out. So, in the beginning, we became a foundation December of 2001. Right away we knew that we wanted to do something to honor the sacrifice that Stephen made that day and we also wanted to honor — because we lost a lot of friends that day too — we wanted to make sure it was named for his act, but we also wanted to remember so many other great friends that we lost,” Siller said. “Part of it is, as siblings we were so proud of what he did that day but he had five kids, we wanted to make sure that they always knew their dad was a hero.”
Foundation programming has expanded over the years as its team recognized the unique needs within the military and first responder communities. The Smart Home Program, as an example, builds mortgage-free smart homes for catastrophically-injured service members. To date, 85 homes have started construction or are in the design stage. Forty homes have been given to the families of law enforcement, firefighters and emergency workers that lose their lives in the line of duty through the Fallen First Responder Home Program. And in September 2018, the foundation launched a new program designed to support Gold Star spouses, like Jennie Taylor.
Jennie and Brent Taylor were students at Brigham Young University when they were setup on a blind date. Though their paths never crossed on campus, they had much in common like both serving on church missions. In fact, Jennie Taylor said a mutual friend told her, “you got to meet my roommate, he is the male version of you.” That roommate was Brent Taylor.
“The first date was a disaster, but then after that our paths ended up crossing again through friends and at the second opportunity, we actually started to talk to each other and realized we had a lot in common. Most of what we began talking about was how we love this country; he wanted to serve in the military and I was an American history teacher for junior high and high school kids, and it just kind of went from there,” she said.
The couple started dating in 2003, and after the Iraq War started, Taylor said talks got serious about her husband’s desire to serve in the military. He proposed to her in June and by the following week they were talking to a recruiter.
“He didn’t ever join the military with the intention of just sitting back. He knew from the moment he wanted to join that he wanted to go to Iraq, to go to Afghanistan. … For him it was, ‘I want to be there,’” she said. “He was so duty bound.”
After deciding to grow their family, Jennie Taylor decided to leave the teaching profession so she could devote her full attention to raising their children, who now range in age from 1 to 14 years old. In the midst of the grief of losing her husband, Taylor said she also became worried about how she would support her family going forward. Frank Siller, however, had already been planning how the foundation would ease some of those worries, before the two could even meet.
“It was less than 48 hours after we’d been notified of Brent’s death that Frank [Siller] called my sister. … I was on my way to Dover and my sister called and asked my mortgage balance. I said, ‘I have no idea.’ … It was the furthest thing from my mind; I was in such a fog that I didn’t even know why she would be asking me that,” Taylor explained. “By the time I got home, my sister told me that the foundation was going to pay off the mortgage.”
To take that weight off her shoulders, she says, reassured her that she could be home with the kids to help them through losing their father.
In addition to the financial impact the foundation makes on the lives of the people it helps, Frank Siller and his team also build lifelong relationships because they share the unspeakable bond of loss. He says he carries a message to each family to let them know their loved one would want them to continue life, even with the engrained sadness that will exist.
“There are no words that can explain what it means to me to be part of these families’ lives. I sit with them, I talk to them, I cry with them. It just kills me; I get very angry because I know what they have to go through, albeit I know they’ll survive it. Their life is changed forever. You learn to live with it, you never totally recover,” Siller said. “ … but you can have great days and you can have a great life. … there’s life after death for these families.”