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Respect, honor for a soldier gone too soon

WILLMAR - It's amazing how many sounds there are when it's quiet. Under a cool, gray sky Wednesday outside the Willmar Civic Center, sounds of grief, honor and respect rolled across the grounds as family, friends, military personnel, political leaders and community members arrived and departed the funeral of Army Sgt. Joshua Schmit.

The 26-year-old Willmar High School graduate was killed by a roadside bomb April 14 in Iraq, just 10 days before his tour was to have ended.

As birds began their early morning songs, Trudie Guptill and T.C. Haycraft stood at the entrance of the Civic Center and quietly pinned tiny yellow ribbons onto the lapels of people who arrived early for the 11 a.m. funeral service.

In hushed voices, the two women explained that they were there to provide whatever assistance the Schmit family needed.

Guptill, who has a son in the National Guard, and Haycraft, whose husband is in the National Guard, are members of Homefront Patriots.

The group's five active members support the Willmar National Guard members and their families. The death last year of another Willmar soldier, Kyle Miller, "forced us to organize," said Guptill. The group, which welcomes new members, supports all branches of the military.

Trisha Appeldorn, the Kandiyohi County veterans service officer, was one of the first to arrive at the Civic Center for the funeral. Although four years older than Schmit, she knew him from high school and the two had worked together at Walt's in Willmar. "I have very fond memories of him," she said.

Next week, Appeldorn will help Schmit's widow, Andrea, complete military paperwork.

The rumble of nearly 120 motorcycles then snaked through the parking lot as members of the Patriot Guard riders arrived. The powerful roar of the bikes had the same quieting effect as if a fighter jet had soared overhead.

After parking their bikes, the riders wordlessly dismounted and lined the sidewalk on either side of the Civic Center doors. Wearing jeans, black leather jackets and standing straight and silent, the men and women unfurled large flags that snapped in the brisk, spring wind.

The nearly 3,000 members of the Minnesota Patriot Guard provide "a sea of flags" and bring "respect and honor" to funerals of fallen soldiers, said Doug Bley of Bloomington, who is the senior ride captain for the group.

The Patriot Guard -- which includes old and young, veterans and those who've never been in the military, factory workers and executives -- attend soldiers' funerals if they're invited by the family, said Bley. "They can count on us to be there," he said.

Some take vacation time from work to attend the funerals. "It's the least we can do" for a family and community that's lost a member, said Bley, who doesn't like to talk about how many funerals for Minnesota soldiers he's attended.

"We've been to this town too many times," said Bley, who was also in Willmar for Miller's funeral. "It's hard being here," he said. "But however I feel, it's miniscule in comparison to how the family is feeling."

Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, shook the hand of every Patriot Guard member and thanked them for being there. The action was repeated by several women who slowly walked down the long line and deliberately looked each Patriot Guard member in the eyes and said "thank you."

Cars full of young couples holding hands, and young soldiers wearing simple uniforms, arrived and walked briskly through the flanks of the Patriot Guard, followed by well-decorated military personnel with gold braid and medals on their sharply creased uniforms.

Older veterans, who wore caps identifying their military affiliation and membership in local American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, shuffled into the building.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, quickly entered the Civic Center as the State Patrol and security personnel looked on.

After Schmit's family arrived in two large, motor coach buses, a sharp bark from the military honor guard sent a harsh jolt through the air and Schmit's casket was carried under the flags and into the Civic Center.

The Rev. Dean Johnson, a retired Minnesota National Guard brigadier general and former state senator, led the procession. Pausing before going through the doors, Johnson bowed his head and fought to hold back tears. He failed.

After everyone had entered and the doors of the Civic Center closed, the faint sound of music and a congregational hymn could be heard outside, where the Patriot Guard members kept their vigil. "We never leave until the family does," Bley said.

During the funeral the Patriot Guard stayed outside and regrouped into a new formation.

With the strains of the final song playing, the doors of the Civic Center opened and the casket-bearers and Schmit's family slowly emerged and was surrounded by a sea of flags and respect and honor.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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