As people filled the chairs set outside the church for her brother's memorial service, Sue Ritter's eyes filled with tears.
Many of the folks didn't really know Staff Sgt. Brian Hellermann, 35, who left the farming community after finishing high school to join the Army. Since then he had served in the Persian Gulf War and in Saudi Arabia, gotten married, had a couple of kids and settled in Fort Bragg, N.C.
But the people solemnly filing into the parklike glen outside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church knew Brian's family. They heard he was a quiet guy who had worried about going to Iraq but was determined to do his duty. It was about freedom, he had written a friend.
And that's why the population of tiny St. Rosa swelled sevenfold Saturday, as 500 people gathered to remember the hometown boy whose sudden death on Aug. 6 in an ambush on a Baghdad street had shaken them to the core.
"Whether or not they knew him, they had respect for what he did, and everybody felt the sadness," said Ritter, who lives in nearby Avon.
Hellermann's funeral was held in Salisbury, N.C., where his wife, Michelle, is from and where he was buried Thursday with military honors.
His widow and children were unable to be in St. Rosa on Saturday, but nearly everyone else was there: Hellermann's mother, Caroline Erickson, and his stepfather, Wally, of St. Rosa; Ritter and his other sister, Michelle Wolbeck of Grey Eagle, Minn., and their husbands; stepbrothers and stepsisters, friends and school chums.
One former classmate, Jeff Tschida, remembered how Hellermann's father, Luverne, a veteran, had taught his son how to dig a foxhole. His father died of a heart attack while Hellermann was at Melrose High School.
"He was a quiet kid, but he would always stick up for the ones that were picked on," said Tschida, of Melrose. "He wouldn't back down from anyone. I guess once he grew up, he did the same thing."
Two priests and a bishop celebrated the memorial mass among rows of cedar trees festooned with yellow ribbons. Displayed between the altar and the congregation were Hellermann's picture, his service ribbons and a flag flying at half-staff by order of Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Also attending were Pawlenty's wife, Mary; Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau; U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, and U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy.
Soldiers and officers in Army dress greens and black berets dotted the crowd. A color guard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Melrose delivered a rifle salute.
The Rev. Roger Klassen, pastor of St. Rose's, said in his homily that Iraq is traditionally thought to be the location of the Garden of Eden, "an area of plenty and peace." Hellermann died, he said, trying to restore that peace.
"We pray that we can love one another, as Brian loved us and served us with his life," Klassen said.
Ritter delivered a final eulogy.
"Brian, you've done your part to make the world a better place. . . Rest in peace with your father, knowing we love you and that he - and we - are very proud," she said.
Kevin Duchschere is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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