Sgt. James Wosika Jr.'s weakness was chocolate ice cream. His long-term goal was to become a fireman. His short-term goal was to come home safely from the war in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Wosika, 24, was killed by a homemade bomb while he was on foot patrol for the Minnesota National Guard near the town of Fallujah, becoming the 49th person with strong ties to Minnesota to die in the conflict.
Wosika, a state champion wrestler and a football player at Highland Park Senior High in St. Paul, also became the third member of Company B, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, to die
in the past five weeks in Iraq.
Two friends, Specialists Bryan T. McDonough, 22, of Maplewood, and Corey J. Rystad, 20, of Red Lake Falls, died in early December in the same area when a bomb destroyed their Humvee. Sgt. John Kriesel lost his legs in the bombing.
"This has been a tough month for Company B," Lt. Col. Kevin Gutknecht of the National Guard said through tears Wednesday. "I feel deeply, deeply sad for the families that have had to endure these losses."
Wosika's death was announced on the same day that President Bush delivered a nationally televised address urging an escalation in the number of soldiers deployed to Iraq.
Therese Goddard, a neighbor of the Wosika family, said that after she learned of the death she called U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, urging them to bring home the troops.
"I'm heartbroken for the family," Goddard said. "But on the other hand, I'm angry that any more American troops should be killed in Iraq."
But Gutknecht made it clear Wednesday that Wosika's death should not be politicized.
"I think that any day a soldier dies is a sad day," he said, "and other things that are going on in the world, I think, have no bearing."
A chilling effect
Wednesday's mood was somber at the Wosika home, where American flags and a U.S. Army flag were in a window and on the front porch of the home in the West End neighborhood of St. Paul.
James Wosika Sr., in a KSTP-TV interview, said his son came from a long line of military people and that he joined the service to honor them.
"He was doing what he wanted to do for his country," the elder Wosika told the station. "Our minds are a blank. We don't know whether to laugh or cry or what."
Ann Taylor, 81, who lives around the corner from the family and spent Tuesday with them, said the death hit the West 7th neighborhood hard.
"I prayed for him every single day and had a yellow ribbon on my tree," said Taylor, who has carried a picture of Wosika in the display window of her purse since he was deployed last March. "I raised the flag every morning for Jimmy since he's been in Iraq. He was just a wonderful kid."
Jim Paddock, an assistant principal at Como Park High School and Wosika's former wrestling coach at Highland, said he had known Wosika since the soldier was in the seventh grade.
"He had two loves, wrestling and to serve his country," Paddock said. "He was a good kid, the kind that showed up everyday and you could depend on him. It's going to be a big hole in everybody's heart."
That much was evident on Wosika's MySpace.com website, which was filled with remembrances from Wosika's friends in Minnesota and his fellow soldiers in Iraq.
"I never thought this would happen," wrote a 21-year-old Oakdale soldier stationed with Wosika in Fallujah. "It sucks so much, but I know you're in a better place now with Bryan and Corey. ... It was
an honor getting to know you and serving with you. I'll always miss you buddy. Rest in peace."
Other friends called Wosika, who joined the National Guard in 2000 after high school, a hero for his military service.
"You were a great person and a hero to many," a 24-year-old St. Paul woman wrote. "We love you and you will be greatly missed. RIP my friend."
The MySpace pages are also filled with insight into Wosika's personality (such as his weakness for chocolate ice cream) and his character, including his motto that "Your life is there so grab it!!!"
Wosika, who accessed his MySpace page the night before he died, wrote that he believed heroes were "any man or [woman] that has died for this country."
His biggest fear?
"Not coming home."
Staff writer Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report.