Minnesota National Guard Staff Sgt. Joshua R. Hanson was riding in a Humvee in Iraq Wednesday afternoon when an improvised explosive device detonated, rocking the vehicle and setting it
ablaze. A half-dozen other soldiers tried to pull Hanson, who was sitting nearest the blast, to safety, but they were called off when it became too dangerous.
The 27-year-old from Dent, Minn., died immediately, a military official said from Iraq on Friday afternoon.
The six soldiers who tried to save him - many of them also from northwestern Minnesota - suffered smoke inhalation and second- and third-degree burns on their hands and arms, said Lt. Col. Paul
Zimmerman, deputy commander of the 1st of the 34th Brigade Combat Team.
"It is a tragedy for Minnesota," he said of Hanson's death. His family, friends and military officials gathered at the Detroit Lakes armory Friday to recall his service and the heroism of the six soldiers.
"He'd hate that we're crying," said Hanson's longtime friend Jessica Fahje. "He always made us laugh."
Hanson recently graduated with a degree in law enforcement from Minnesota State University, Moorhead, she and a military official said.
Hanson was assigned to the Guard's Company A, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, from Detroit Lakes.
Military officials said Hanson was a team leader in charge of about three other soldiers and the 3-ton Humvee, which they said was armored and fitted with bullet-proof glass, during the explosion about noon Wednesday near Khalidiyah, Iraq. The soldiers were on combat patrol with Marines on a four-day offensive to capture and kill Iraqi insurgents, Zimmerman said at a news conference.
Hanson joined the National Guard between his junior and senior years at Pelican Rapids High School, where he played football and graduated in 1998. He was deployed to Bosnia from the summer of 2003 to the summer of 2004, said Lt. Col. Kevin Gutknecht, the rear detachment commander of the 1st of the 34th Brigade Combat Team.
Hanson, who went to Iraq in March, sent messages home full of reassurances that he was doing well, Fahje said. His only complaint: the heat.
"He was always a rock when everyone was worried for him," she said.
Hanson was supposed to come home next month for a short visit. A hay ride was planned with old high school friends, Fahje said. And long after that, when his service in Iraq was over, he hoped to
become an Otter Tail County deputy, she said.
On Friday, his parents, younger brother, girlfriend and Fahje were too emotional to share more.
Gutknecht read a statement from Hanson's family as they stood nearby.
"Josh was a wonderful and loving son and a great friend," it said. "He was proud to serve his country as duty called. ... Our solace is knowing that Josh died doing what he felt he needed to do."
David Knopf of Detroit Lakes attended the news conference in support of Hanson's family and the Guard. He said his son, Justin, is serving in Iraq and was among the six who tried to rescue Hanson. Knopf said his son didn't want to talk about the incident, but is doing well physically. The other injured soldiers were not identified.
The soldiers who tried to rescue Hanson, and two other soldiers in his company who were wounded in a separate incident Wednesday, returned to light duty and are expected to make a full recovery, Zimmerman said.
Knopf and his wife, Diane, work with military families in the area and said many of the soldiers injured while trying to save Hanson are from within 30 miles of Detroit Lakes. The Knopfs said
they have spoken with many of the soldiers' families. "We're OK, but we're kind of shaken up," Diane Knopf said.
Minnesota Guard spokesman Maj. Kevin Olson said Hanson is the sixth Guard member from the state to die in Iraq. More than 40 soldiers with state ties have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Funeral plans for Hanson are pending.
David Knopf, who is retired from the Guard, said,
"Freedom isn't free. These soldiers aren't giving their lives for naught."