March 3, 2005: Remembering a sacrifice, honoring a life

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2011 - 4:04 PM

Appleton, Minn., mourned fallen son Sgt. Jesse Lhotka, who died in Iraq last week.

The town that never forgets its war dead made room Wednesday for a governor and military friends from throughout western Minnesota in remembering and honoring Sgt. Jesse Lhotka.

At the funeral's end, Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood on the street with flag-bearing veterans nearby and the moan of bagpipes heard from within Zion Lutheran Church.

The only sound to obscure them, and only intermittently so, was the flapping of a U.S. flag flying half-staff across the street at the former Appleton High School.

Said Jane Ellefson of Dawson, a flag-bearer and former Minnesota National Guard instructor: "I didn't think this would happen - that we'd ever see students we'd have to remember in this fashion."

More than 850 people, many of them with family members still serving in Iraq, crowded into Zion Lutheran and spilled over into the auditorium of the old high school.

It was the second of three funerals to be held in western Minnesota this week for Minnesota National Guard soldiers killed Feb. 21 by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.

The bomb exploded while they tended to two soldiers whose Humvee had flipped.

One of those two, Spc. Corey Fennell of Benson, said Lhotka saved his life, according to an account given last week by Fennell's father to the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn.

It's been that kind of sacrifice and heroism that has led Appleton to honor its war dead by renaming streets after them.

On Wednesday, however, Lhotka also was remembered for his devotion to his five siblings and for his "four-wheeling, fixing vehicles and collecting coins," according to the funeral program.

"Jesse had the uncanny knack of making people laugh!" the program said.

A letter from his wife, Stacey Lhotka, to whom he'd been married only five months before his death, was read in church, and it told of Sunday movies, "Dairy Queen nights" and the special way that he
had held her.

Their love would be about quality, she wrote, not quantity.

Military presence

As the service rolled on Wednesday afternoon, life did too along the city's main street. People were washing clothes at the Rainbow Laundromat and coming in and out of Liebe Drug and Farmers &
Merchants State Bank.

On a counter at the bank was a silver box - about one-third full, a woman there said - in which people had been dropping contributions for Lhotka's siblings.

Spanning the street outside was a banner, "WE LOVE YOU JESSE," along with flags that flew for blocks.

Lhotka, the city's first casualty of the Iraq War, will have his name etched on a Streets of Honor Memorial listing the city's war dead.

Today, Lhotka will be buried in a private ceremony at Greenwood Cemetery in Sauk Centre. Also today will be a funeral in Morris, Minn., for Staff Sgt. David Day, 25, of St. Louis Park, formerly of
Morris.

Erv Krosch of Morris, a former Seventh District commander for the American Legion, said outside Zion Lutheran on Wednesday that he had spent a week mingling with Guard members before they shipped out. Lhotka and Day, he said, were "extremely cheerful."

Krosch, who was preparing to be part of Wednesday's Honor Guard, stopped to point out a woman entering the church.


"The lady in the blue, just going in, she's from Morris," he said. "She has a son in Iraq."

Anthony Lonetree is at alonetree@startribune.com.

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