Remembering Captain Dan Utley (1979-2012)
He won the Bronze Star and served our nation and desperate people around the world for nine years in the U.S. Army. Today we mourn a fallen friend, servant, and American hero.
On Friday, April 20, 2012, Captain Daniel H. Utley, U.S. Army, was killed in the North African country of Mali. He was serving in a training mission to help them combat the growing problem of Al Queda terrorism in North Africa. The people of Africa have lost a champion and America has lost a rising star.
It was by reputation only that I first came to know the boy who would grow up to be Captain Daniel Utley. I came to the McConnell Center in January 2000 and nearly immediately one of the students said to me, "You're biggest problem is going to be that Dan Utley is going to graduate in a year." It did not take long to figure out what his colleague was warning me about. Dan was a workhorse of a McConnell Scholar. There are people who serve for titles and glory; Dan was a young man who served in order to serve. His heart was always bigger than his ego; his compassion for others always outshone his ambition for self. His life was no different in the U.S. Army -- what he loved most was serving others in need. He left this world doing just that -- serving in a mission we know little about in a desperate part of the world few of us could find on a map.
Though Dan and I disagreed on some things political and social when he was a student, we had a wonderful relationship. I won't forget the day he shocked me by showing up in my office and asking for help in joining the Army. That was not a career choice any of us would have guessed Dan would have chosen. But he was unhappy in law school and looking for a new challenge. It was a great privilege to work to help him earn a spot in Officer Candidate School. A year or so later he called and we talked and laughed and when I asked him about what seemed to be his evolving worldview he said, "Dr. Gregg . . . the real world changes a man!" Army officer Daniel H. Utley may have changed in some ways over the years, but he never stopped being the "Dan" we all knew and loved.
Dan was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky on April 13, 1979. He died half way around the world just one week after his 33rd birthday. Dan graduated from the McConnell Scholars program and the University of Louisville in the spring of 2001. He joined the army in 2003 and married Katie (also an army officer) in September of 2004.
He served in tours of duty in Afghanistan, South Korea, Kuwait, and Mali. He had many jobs, but I particularly remember when he called and told me he was being made an "Aide-de-Camp" and was going to get a new shoulder holster as part of his job was protecting the General he served. It was a position of great honor and he was humbled to have been chosen, but he wanted to talk most about his cool new sidearm! And, I smile as I remember the day he bragged of heading off to "cool guy training" with special operations. But, typical of Dan, his teasing was just to deflect my praise for his decision to go into special operations in the first place -- which was not for honor or bragging rights, but so that he could better serve the poor people he encountered in Africa and the Middle East.
Over the years Dan came by to visit with us at the McConnell Center, but he never let us prepare ahead of time. He would just pop in -- never having the ego to assume we would want to make plans to be there with him. Last August he came by without warning and we were all out in the other end of the state during our annual retreat. I would give a thousand retreats for the privilege of being with him one last time.
A few years ago, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, after a particularly difficult and exhausting day of interviews for new McConnell Scholars, Malana and Neil Salyer and I were walking out of Ekstrom Library. Tired and stressed, we were heading to our cars for home and rest. We stopped in mid-stride. The last thing we would expect to see: Dan was walking toward us with that old smirk creeping across his face. He was exactly what we needed. I still don't know what brought him to campus that Saturday afternoon, but we spent a few glorious hours together at the Cardinal Hall of Fame Cafe. This past Friday night I got the news of his death when his father Charles sent me an e-mail. As fate would have it, I was sitting just a few feet away and facing the very booth where we sat that day two years before.
During his brief but shining career, Dan won many awards and decorations including the Bronze Star Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Joint Service Achievement Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, the National Defense Service Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with Combat Star, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, and the NATO Medal. He was also awarded the Basic Parachutist Badge and Thailand Jump Wings.
Among my own most prized decorations is the American flag shoulder patch Dan wore on his uniform while serving in the Middle East. He sent it to me after his return with a very generous note that I also cherish. I am in no way worthy of the gesture, but am thankful for Dan’s grace. I carry that patch with me in my wallet today as a reminder of our friendship and his last and greatest sacrifice for us all.
Gary L. Gregg
Director, McConnell Center