BRIGHAM CITY — Brandon Phillips’ heart was big enough to comfortably carry two big loves: the U.S. Army and “his girls,” wife Farrah and two young daughters.
The 25-year-old Brigham City man’s death Tuesday in a car crash on Interstate 15 near Willard left plenty of other hurting hearts.
“It was so unexpected because that family has gone through so much,” said friend Leah Maxfield, of Kaysville. “I thought, God has given them enough to deal with already that taking their husband and father would just be too much.”
Phillips died when the 2002 Dodge Neon he was driving crashed into the rear of a semitrailer that had slowed to avoid an earlier accident.
Phillips is remembered as the consummate soldier and a loving father.
“Everything about him was pure American soldier,” said friend Zach Maxfield, who served with Phillips in Afghanistan and is married to Leah.
This week, mourners wrap their arms around a young family that has seen its share of trials in a short time.
Phillips was injured in an explosion while deployed to Afghanistan, and his youngest daughter is fighting her own battle, against liver disease.
Friends and colleagues say his dual roles as a father and soldier defined Phillips’ life.
“It’s kind of striking that somebody could be such a hard-core soldier, as we call it in the Army, but at same time so very compassionate,” said Capt. Scott Sparrow, Phillips’ commanding officer while in Afghanistan with the Army Reserve’s 744th Engineer Co., based in Ogden.
“The most important thing in his life was his family. I think if you talk to any of the soldiers (in the unit), they’d say the same thing: His family was everything.”
Phillips will be buried Wednesday with full military honors, including the presentation of a flag to his widow and a 21-gun salute, Sparrow said.
The funeral will begin at 11 a.m. at Myers Mortuary in Ogden.
Phillips leaves behind his wife, Farrah, and two daughters, Layla, 4, and Harmonee, who will turn 3 on Monday.
Leah Maxfield said Layla is “very protective of her younger sister,” who is fighting biliary atresia, a rare liver disease that affects only infants.
At only 3 months old, Harmonee received a liver transplant.
Harmonee had spent most of her young life in Primary Children’s Medical Center when her dad left in 2010 for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.
He returned in October 2011 with a hundred of his soldiers-in-arms to a rousing welcome home.
Next week will bring the anniversary of that reunion, a year that had seen Harmonee rally following a difficult rejection of her new organ.
“Brandon has really only had a year of his daughter’s life because he was gone or she was in the hospital,” Leah Maxfield said.
Her husband remains Phillips’ “best battle buddy,” as Farrah calls him.
While in Afghanistan, the reserve unit worked in route clearance, which meant scouring roads for improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs and other enemy threats to allow safe passage for convoys and other military vehicles, Zach Maxfield said.
During that year, the unit saw “several fierce firefights,” he added.
Phillips, who served as a gunner and driver, was injured when his vehicle hit an IED.
The explosion wounded several soldiers, including Phillips, who received a back injury and traumatic brain injury.
Among the many casualties the unit took was the death of Cpl. Raphael R. Arruda, of South Ogden, a good friend of Phillips.
Still, Phillips’ return from Afghanistan is an irony recognized by his friends and family. Zach Maxfield recalls a comment Farrah made the night of the fatal accident.
“She said, ‘Brandon can go to the most dangerous place in world, and he makes it through that — and then he dies from a car accident here. How screwed up is that?’ ”
Now Farrah faces a shaky future, especially with the soon-expected expiration of military health insurance, he said.
“Now she has to worry about how to take care of Harmonee, health insurance-wise. It will take a toll on the family.”
To date, he added, Harmonee’s medical bills have been more than $3 million.
A donation account called the Brandon Phillips Memorial Fund has been opened at Golden West Credit Union to benefit Farrah and the couple’s two daughters.
For more information on Harmonee’s transplant, visit http://harmoneesliver.blogspot.com/.
Zach Maxfield describes a bond with Phillips that was forged through military camaraderie.
In fact, following Phillips’ death, he recalled, “other soldiers started showing up that night to show their support. It’s a big brotherhood.”
Yes, there were plenty of good times.
Phillips was a big fan of Chinese food, Zach Maxfield said.
“I remember when we were back from deployment, every meal was Chinese food. We’d done it for six days and finally went to order pizza, and he was, ‘I’m getting Chinese food.’ ”
But it’s the respect Zach Maxfield has for Phillips that dominates his conversation about his friend. First, as a father.
“If I was half the man he was for my family, I’d be a great person,” he said.
And as a soldier, well, “He was a true hero.”
“When you have a job that no one else wants to do — we called it ‘embrace the suck’ — he’d do it,” Zach Maxfield said.
“As a corporal, he had soldiers under him, and rather than send his soldiers out there, he’d go do it. He was the first one to lead by example, always the first one to go.”
As a civilian, Phillips was aiming for a career in law enforcement. He’d taken the test for the Utah Highway Patrol, Zach Maxfield said, but had failed the hearing test because he still suffered from traumatic brain injury.
Phillips’ next step would have been attending Utah’s police academy, with the goal of joining on a local force.
Leah and Zach Maxfield, like the many family members surrounding Farrah and her two youngsters, are now trying to put aside their grief to help the family cope, they said.
“Me and Brandon had this thing when we deployed that we’d always be there for each other’s family if everything ever happened to us. I still feel I need to live up to that,” Zach Maxfield said.
“I told Farrah and the girls I’d be there, financially, emotionally or spiritually.
“I’ll do whatever I can to be there for them as the girls grow up and get older, to take care of my battle buddy’s family.”