Friends and strangers line route of fallen soldier's procession

GRANITE FALLS -- War came home to Granite Falls on Wednesday afternoon with what one witness called "a deafening silence." Hushed conversations turned utterly silent as a procession of fire and police vehicles led a hearse carrying the body of Sg...

GRANITE FALLS -- War came home to Granite Falls on Wednesday afternoon with what one witness called "a deafening silence."

Hushed conversations turned utterly silent as a procession of fire and police vehicles led a hearse carrying the body of Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Ryan Kahler. Vehicles carrying teary-eyed family members of the deceased serviceman rolled quietly by the hundreds of people who lined the route through town.

"When it is in your backyard, it takes on a different perspective. This is really very difficult," said Gene Stukel. Stukel is a retired Yellow Medicine East instructor and former neighbor of the deceased soldier. He stood with more than 600 Yellow Medicine East students in front of the school building. Red ribbons fluttered on light poles and silent faces squinted under a bright, blue sky.

Kahler, 29, was killed Jan. 26 apparently by friendly fire from an Afghanistan guard while on duty near Waygul, Afghanistan. Kahler was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

The tribute to Kahler began earlier Wednesday in Willmar. American flags lined the sidewalk at the Willmar Municipal Airport, where the casket carrying Kahler was brought off a plane.


Three members of the Patriot Guard Riders who attended Kahler's return in Willmar were Roger Bredesen of Willmar, Ross Petersen of Clara City, and Jere Olson of Kerkhoven. Adorned in their organization-branded leather jackets, the three held American flags for the entrance and exit of Kahler's family and for the beginning of the processional out of town and down state Highway 23 to Granite Falls.

According to the three men, this reception was the fourth they have attended in two years as Patriot Guard Riders.

Linda Solien of New London, a retired teacher from Willmar Junior High, said she wanted to be at the airport for Kahler's arrival because she had missed the processional for Sgt. Joshua Schmit in April 2007. Schmit was a Willmar native who died while fighting in Iraq. Solien said she thought Schmit had been one of her students and felt she needed to be at the reception of Kahler's body.

"It's really tough," Solien said, trying to fight back a tear. "Sometimes I think there would be less fighting if more moms were in control."

If anyone knew the danger that Matthew Kahler faced in Afghanistan, it was the soldier himself, according to Ben Lecy. Lecy is a YME teacher who first met Kahler when he was in the ninth grade, and came to eventually know the young man as a close friend.

Kahler was serving his third tour in the Middle East, having already completed assignments in both Iraq and Afghanistan before re-enlisting.

During his last visit home, Lecy said he and Kahler had discussed the soldier's willingness to go into harm's way. Lecy warned him that it was not a question of if, but when he would be shot.

"Yes sir, but I'm willing to do that for my country," Lecy said Kahler told him.


"Sergeant Matthew Ryan Kahler is someone who believed so much in his country that he was willing to sacrifice his life without hesitation, without hesitation," Lecy said.

Kahler was someone who wanted to serve in the military, friends said.

"He knew if he did that he would make a difference," said former teacher Stukel.

Kahler graduated from YME High School in 1997 and one year later married his high school sweetheart, Vicki (Streich). She and their 4-year-old daughter, Allison, had returned just one day earlier from Italy to join the procession and prepare for her husband's funeral Saturday.

Gib Christensen, dressed in his military camouflage, held his hand over his heart in front of the Yellow Medicine County Courthouse as the procession went by. Christensen had served in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard in 2004 and 2005, and volunteered to bring Vicki Kahler and family members back to Granite Falls on Monday from the airport in the Twin Cities.

"She has lots of family support," Christensen said.

The ride brought back memories for him. "I knew guys hurt and killed in Iraq," he explained. He serves with the 151st Field Artillery Battalion based in Montevideo, and recently got news that his unit is back on alert and could be redeployed.

"We're just trying to show our support," said Dick Wambeke, who along with his wife, Jan, joined the line of people on the street. The Wambekes said they know the parents of Vicki Kahler, Ernie and Linda Streich.


They know the anxiety of having a loved one serving, too. Their son, Brad, is a major with the Army's 82nd (Airborne) Division and has just completed a 15-month assignment in Iraq. As the Wambekes held American flags and watched the procession, they waited for word on whether their son's unit has left Iraq. "We're just hoping to get him home safe and sound," said Dick Wambeke.

Sgt. Kahler's family members have asked for privacy as they mourn his loss, but the community's support has not gone unnoticed. "We've been overwhelmed with the support," said Colleen Kahler, mother of the soldier, speaking on Tuesday. "We feel like it is a time to just pause and think about what the military has done for us through the years and what they are doing for us right now."

-- Staff Writer Garret Felder contributed to this story.

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