Moments after a gray drenching rain, hundreds of mourners popped up like flowers on the boulevards of Cottage Grove to say goodbye Friday to a fallen soldier, Specialist Carlos Eduardo Wilcox IV.
Young and old waved American flags as a white hearse carried the casket to a funeral that attracted an estimated 800 people. Dozens of Patriot Guard motorcyclists led the procession, which rolled down 80th Avenue past a squad of saluting firefighters and blocks of mourners standing smartly in his honor.
Some wept as the hearse passed, including Mary Schmidt of St. Paul Park, who brushed the tears from her eyes.
"We need to do everything we can to support those soldiers," said Schmidt, holding a billowing flag with a single blue star in the middle. "I just can't imagine what that mother's going through right now."
Wilcox, 27, was one of three soldiers -- all members of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Red Bull Infantry Division -- who died July 16 in a missile strike near Basra, Iraq, where the soldiers were part of a military police unit providing security. Also killed were Daniel Drevnick, 22, a graduate of Woodbury High School, and James Wertish, 20, from Olivia. A fourth soldier in the unit was wounded.
Drevnick's funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at King of Kings Lutheran Church in Woodbury, with burial at 1 p.m. at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Services for Wertish will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bird Island, with burial to follow at St. Aloysius Cemetery in Olivia. Visitation is at St. Mary's Church from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Schmidt, whose son Tony is soon headed to Iraq for 400 days, flies the blue-star flag at her house, signifying her as a mother of a son or daughter in active military duty. Tony, a communications specialist, is a member of the Guard's 204th Medical Company.
"I have to support my son, as hard as it is everyday," she said.
As the procession passed, dozens of children attending summer Bible school at the Church of St. Rita watched with curious eyes. "We told them it's not a parade," said Kathy Kovarik, the church's business manager. "We're respecting the soldier who gave his life for his country."
Friends described Wilcox as somebody who would light up a room. "He was everybody's best friend," said Mike Delaney of Minneapolis outside Light the Way Church, where streams of people, many of them in military uniform, waited to go inside. "No matter what was going on, he was always cheerful."
Wilcox had hoped to become a medical doctor. Friends said that he decided on that profession at age 14 and that he was studying for a medical school exam. Delaney said that Wilcox was fluent in Spanish and would talk about physics, chemistry, biology, foreign languages, politics and anything else that came up. Other friends said Wilcox had a contagious sense of humor that often led him to adopt his made-up personality, Willis Jackson, attorney at law.
"He was one of those people everyone would rally to," Delaney said.
At the funeral, the Rev. John Magee paid tribute to all men and women in the military. "Every day they wear that uniform it could be their last," he told mourners in the overflowing church.
Later, military officers presented Wilcox's mother, Charlene Wilcox, with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart awarded to her son after his death. Magee, in a passionate message of hope, spoke of how Charlene Wilcox, a math teacher at Cottage Grove Junior High School, had raised Carlos and his three siblings after her husband died 19 years ago.
"You are a credit to them, you are a credit to all humanity, and we love you with all our hearts," Magee told her. The assembled included Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Nate Montpetit, who had been friends with Carlos since the seventh grade, told the crowd: "He was the most amazing person I ever met. What he stood for, what he lived for, was beyond my comprehension." Montpetit read a rap poem that included this verse: "He showed us what it truly takes to constitute a man."
Wilcox graduated from Tartan High School in Oakdale and attended Arizona State University and Inver Hills Community College before earning a degree in biology at Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities. He spent a semester studying abroad in Granada, Spain.
After his deployment this spring, Wilcox told friends that he volunteered to extend his deployment to Iraq by three months. They said that he never complained about his assignment and that he was grateful for the chance to serve as a medic.
He'll be buried Tuesday beside his father at New Albany National Cemetery in Indiana.
Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities have arrested a member of an Iranian-backed militia suspected in the attack. Maj. Gen. Adil Daham, chief of the Basra provincial police, said Iraqi officials seized four Iranian-made rockets.
Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432