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Body of slain Olivia soldier returns home

Some boys just don't want to do their assigned chores at Boy Scout camp, but James Wertish wasn't one of them. Whatever was listed for him on the duty roster, "he just did it," said Scout master Bob Fesenmaier of Olivia.

That quiet, respectful boy, "always willing to help," is who Fesenmaier remembered Thursday afternoon as he joined hundreds of others to welcome Wertish home for the last time.

Wertish, 20, a specialist with the Minnesota Army National Guard 34th Infantry Division, was one of three Minnesota soldiers killed in a missile attack July 16 near Basra, Iraq.

Wertish's body was returned to Minnesota on Thursday morning and escorted from St. Paul to Olivia.

A small plane flew low and slow over the town, trailing a fluttering American flag to signal the arrival of the procession in Olivia, where people lined U.S. Highways 212 and 71 to pay their respects.

The slow-moving procession went through area towns and took Wertish's body for one last visit to his family's rural Olivia farm before returning to Dirks-Blem Funeral Home in Olivia.

The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bird Island.

On Thursday, people had started placing American flags at St. Mary's. A sign there memorialized Wertish and the other two soldiers who were killed in the July 16 insurgent attack -- Spc. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove and Spc. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury.

Eighteen emergency vehicles from Renville County and the communities of Olivia, Danube, Sacred Heart, Renville, Hector and Bird Island led the procession through Bird Island and Olivia. The hearse and two SUVs carrying family members were escorted by Patriot Guard motorcyclists.

Those who had come to pay their respects in Olivia stood quietly along the roadway, many holding flags. As the hearse passed slowly by, they applauded.

Some young adults standing near the funeral home hugged and cried as the hearse went by.

Two dozen Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts stood at attention and held flags.

In Bird Island and Olivia on Thursday, it seemed that nearly everybody watching the procession had some connection to Wertish. For many, he was like family.

His old catechism teachers from St. Mary's Catholic Church of Bird Island, Pat O'Neill and Kathryn Knight, were there. O'Neill said that for many in the small town, the loss of one child of the community was like losing one of their own.

"Our community is like a family," she said, fighting back tears. "We raise these kids. We raise them, and we bury them."

Joe Moudry, the head custodian at BOLD Elementary School in Bird Island, said he remembers a boy who enjoyed farming with his father and wanted someday to be a police officer.

All the appreciation shown by the crowds of people lining the highway couldn't begin to pay Wertish back for his service, he said.

"All these heartfelt people who came out to recognize what he did, it's a small thing, a small reward," he said. "He lost out on a lot of life."

Jason Serbus, of Phoenix, was in Bird Island with his wife, Paula, and infant son, Garret, visiting family. He said he didn't know Wertish personally, but that his younger siblings did. Everybody in the small town, he said, could claim some connection to the slain soldier.

"When a tragedy like this happens, it hits a small town like this really hard," he said.

His mother, Valerie, of Bird Island, was taking it hard as Wertish's body passed through town. After it passed, she looked at her grandson, and kissed him on his forehead.

A tearful Judy Schroeder of Olivia stood in the shade of a small tree across from the Renville County Courthouse in Olivia. "I knew James's grandparents, and it's just a tragedy," she said. "We just have to show our support." She was joined by her daughter Katie Martinson and granddaughter Jessi Christensen, 4.

"My cousin was in Iraq," Martinson said. "He's already back, thank goodness."

In front of the courthouse, Air Force veteran and county employee Chris Hettig waited along the highway.

Hettig said she did not know Wertish herself but waited to see him brought home "out of respect for the Wertish family and friends."

Standing next to Hettig was Jon Wogen, a retired teacher who knew Wertish as a student. Wogen held a large U.S. flag.

"We had a real patriot die here," he said, "so we're going to support the family."

Wogen remembered Wertish as "a real nice kid, well-behaved, mature. ... His family can be real proud of him."

Brian Sams of Redwood Falls stood in his Patriot Guard garb, holding the Stars and Stripes. A small group had been invited to escort the hearse with Wertish's casket, and some of the other riders came to honor him along the way.

"We will be serving functions at the funeral and visitation," said Sams, a Patriot Guard member for two years. "It's an honor to stand the flag line for any soldier."

Gloria and Larry Gunderson of rural Olivia and their daughter, Cameo Van Horn of Renville, stood out in their bright red T-shirts from the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. They were joined by Van Horn's daughter Samantha, 8.

Gloria Gunderson lost her brother from Spooner, Wis., in Iraq in July 2003. The program offers support for survivors of people who have died serving their country. "We hate to see new members into our group," she said.

The Gundersons live 5 miles north of the Wertish farm. Larry Gunderson said he has done business with James Wertish's father and knew the young soldier. "He was a credit to our new generation," he said in a voice choked with emotion.

The Gundersons said they haven't been in contact with the Wertishes yet but will be available when they are needed.

"It helps to know that you're not alone, that there are others going through it," Gloria Gunderson said. After all the attention has faded away and people go back to their own lives, "we'll still be there."