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After brother's death, Grand Forks teen raises awareness about seat belts

Sixteen-year-old Piper Welsh is spearheading a campaign to promote seatbelt use after her brother Patrick was killed in a car accident earlier this year. Patrick, a N.D. National Guard soldier, was killed just two months after returning from Iraq. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Piper Welsh had a close bond to her older brother, Patrick, and picked up some of his traits.

"She probably has a little bit of her brother's stubbornness in her," Piper's mom Stacy said. "He was her hero."

But Piper Welsh's stubbornness has been a good thing since March, when her brother died in a car accident only two months after returning from a yearlong stint in Iraq with the North Dakota Army National Guard.

Patrick was driving the car without a seat belt at the time of the rollover and died, while his girlfriend who was also in the car walked away with minor injuries because she was buckled up. "It shows that in this accident, that seat belt would have saved his life," Stacy said.

She decided to use her personal loss and story as a way to promote the use of seat belts. "I've noticed so many people have tried to get the message across," she said. "People are more likely to listen if they have something to relate to."

Piper, 16, has spoken with groups, and teamed up with Altru Hospital's Safe Communities Coalition to make decals that serve as a reminder for motorists in the region.

Monday, she was at the Grand Forks City Council meeting to present Mayor Mike Brown with a decal and keep Patrick's memory alive. "I just don't want anyone else to go through what I'm going through right now," she told the council.

Shortly after her brother's death, Piper told her mom that she wanted to do something in honor of Patrick. She said her efforts haven't been that hard to keep up -- she has a cause and it's for her brother.

"Hopefully, people will get the message and wear their seat belts," she said.

Piper admitted she has become the seat belt enforcer for friends and family members since Patrick's death. She added that most people listen to her warning after she tells her story. She wants to follow in her brother's footsteps and join the military, possibly going into the military police, before eventually going on to college.

Patrick was stubborn, she said, but she thought he would have eventually worn his seatbelt all the time if someone nagged him enough.

Welsh said she has a good idea of how her older brother would react to her campaign. "I know that he would have been proud."