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Miller family offers thanks to the local community for its effort in time of loss

As the funeral procession for Sgt. Kyle Miller drove slowly through Willmar, Brig. Gen. Dean Johnson saw something he hadn't seen before. At businesses along the route, employees stood outside, lined up with their hands over their hearts. Family ...

As the funeral procession for Sgt. Kyle Miller drove slowly through Willmar, Brig. Gen. Dean Johnson saw something he hadn't seen before.

At businesses along the route, employees stood outside, lined up with their hands over their hearts.

Family members were "absolutely awestruck and comforted by it," said Johnson, a chaplain in the Army National Guard for 37 years.

The strength of the community response in Willmar and the surrounding area was something he hadn't experienced, Johnson said.

"Not to minimize any other community, it just seemed that this particular event of a 19-year-old in Willmar gave the community pause," Johnson said.

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Miller, 19, a member of the Minnesota National Guard, died June 29 when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Iraq. He was buried a week ago. When Miller's body was returned to Willmar on July 7, "it just set the tone for the whole event," Johnson said.

Miller's mother Kathy of Bird Island remembers seeing people lined up along the road as the hearse made its way to Willmar by way of Highway 212. It started in Hector and built along the way.

"That was the most amazing thing," Kathy said. "It was so impressive, all for my little boy. He was grown up, but he was my little boy."

The families saw people standing in the towns and at the end of the gravel roads in between, holding flags, saluting or covering their hearts.

"It was all ages, people from all walks of life," Johnson said. "It didn't seem to matter, they all just came together."

The tone continued through a visitation attended by about 900 people. More than 1,000 people attended the funeral.

At the visitation, "there was one man who fell on his knees in front of my son's coffin," Kathy said.

She talked with some tearful young soldiers and asked if Kyle had ever made them laugh. The question brought smiles to their faces.

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"My son lived the way I taught him -- if you make people smile, they live longer," she said.

Johnson said he told family members that memories of the community's support might help carry them through the days to come.

Memories of Kyle are all over for the family. His prize possession, a silver pickup, is parked in front of his father Randy's house in Willmar.

"I look out into the yard, and I see the tree he climbed," Kathy said. Kyle grew up in Bird Island before moving to Willmar to finish high school.

The support of their family, friends and communities has been a comfort in the past two week, the parents said in interviews last week.

It has come through gestures both large and small.

Randy and his wife Candy leaned on her children when the news of Kyle's death came. Her oldest daughter answered the door and the phone on that first day, shielding them from all but the most important calls.

When Kathy was crying in the night and couldn't stop, she called a friend who came right over and stayed through the next day.

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Neighbors, friends and even complete strangers have brought food, sent letters of condolence and shown kindness in countless other ways.

"I've had people hug me in stores who don't even know me," Kathy said.

Cards keep arriving. Thank-you notes will be done as family members are able, Randy said.

"If we did 100 a day, it would take us 10 to 15 days," he said.

Some of the cards they've received came from people they don't know personally, and some of the signatures are difficult to read. Some are from people who have also lost children.

"There's so many people," Randy said. "I want it known out there, if we don't get a thank you (note) to some people, I want them to know there's a thank you out there from us."

Their Willmar neighbors have provided food, kitchen help and great support, Randy and Candy said. They have planted a shrub in Kyle's honor and erected a flag pole in front of the family's home.

"It makes me happy about where we live," Randy said. "And Bird Island, they're the same type of people down there."

All said their employers and coworkers have helped them, too. Randy and Candy decided to go back to work late last week, although they said the first day back was not easy. Kathy said she wasn't ready quite yet.

Their churches, Vinje Lutheran in Willmar and Our Savior's Lutheran in Bird Island, and their pastors have been there when they have needed them.

The military has provided steadfast support, with a sergeant assigned to assist each household. They have called or stopped by every day.

"What we as a community want each family to know, especially the Miller family, by our demonstration of presence and prayers, is it's not just a one-day event for this community," Johnson said. "It will be remembered for a long, long time. A huge and brave sacrifice has been made."

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