Happy homecomings and 17 funerals mark Minnesota's involvement in Iraq

Greeting her daughter
St. Paul Park resident Lisa Leisher hugs her daughter, Nicole, who arrived back in Minnesota in July. "We can be complete again," Leisher said.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

For Minnesota, 2007 was not the deadliest year related to fighting the war on terrorism. That was 2005, when 19 were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A little more than one month ago, Army Sgt. First Class John Tobiason became the 16th soldier with strong Minnesota ties to die in 2007. At the end of November, the Department of Defense said Tobiason died of injuries sustained in Baghdad on Nov. 28, and that his death was under investigation. His family said he stepped out of a tent and shots were fired.

Sgt. John Tobiason
Sgt. First Class John Tobiason of Hayfield died in Iraq in November.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Reserve

Tobiason last lived near Rochester in the southern Minnesota town of Hayfield. Delmont Martin, who runs the local American Legion, remembered Tobiason as having proudly carried the flag in Hayfield's Fourth of July parade last summer.

Reacting to Tobiason's death in November, Martin said the news would force people, at least in Hayfield, to pay attention to the war.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"I listen to ABC News in the morning. There were 36 people killed over there this month, and I never heard it mentioned once," said Martin. "It's like it doesn't exist anymore. If you don't kill at least 10 people, it's not newsworthy. I think that sucks."

Fifteen other members of the military with strong Minnesota ties died over the past 12 months in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the vast majority of them killed in bomb attacks.

Adjutant Gen. Larry Shellito
Adjutant Gen. Larry Shellito, commander of the Minnesota National Guard.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Two days before Tobiason died, an IED detonation took the life of military contractor William Juneau of Rush City. Juneau was traveling southeast of Baghdad when an explosion hit his convoy.

The first Minnesota-related war death of 2007 came early in the year.

On Jan. 10, Minnesota Army National Guard Lt. Col. Kevin Gutknecht held back tears as he announced the death of fellow Guard member Army Sgt. James Wosika, Jr.

"It's my sad duty to inform you today that a Minnesota National Guard soldier was killed in combat operations in Iraq," said Gutknecht.

Wosika, 24, was from St. Paul. He died Jan. 9 when a bomb went off in Fallujah where he was on a foot patrol.

Spc. Robert Dixon
Spc. Robert Dixon, 27, of Minneapolis, was killed in Iraq when a roadside bomb detonated near his vehicle.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

Wosika was one of about 2,600 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team called up for Iraq duty more than two years ago.

On the same day Wosika's death was announced came word that the 1st Brigade would not be coming home in the spring as planned.

The soldiers got caught up in the controversial troop surge ordered by President Bush. The Department of Defense extended their time in Iraq by four months.

When theGuard members finally came home in July, they carried with them the distinction of having served more time on the ground in Iraq than any other U.S. military unit.

As they piled off chartered airplanes at a base in Wisconsin, wearing their desert fatigues and carrying their firearms, the soldiers marveled at the lush greenery of the Midwest.

Back in the U.S.
The first group of Minnesota National Guard members landed at a Wisconsin air field in July, after completing their tour of duty in Iraq.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"I'm specialist Kreger from St. Paul, Minnesota, and it feels great to be back on American soil," said Mark Kreger.

Kreger was among the first to return. He said he spent a lot of his time in Iraq trying to keep roads free of bombs. In just days, he would be reunited with his wife and 8-year-old daughter.

"It's a long awaited dream. The air is a lot crisper, cleaner, not having to walk on rock and sand. It's a lot more stable," said Kreger. "It just feels good."

Minnesota Guard Gen. Rick Erlandson told returning troops they made a huge difference in the lives of the Iraqi people.

"No matter what history says about Operation Iraqi Freedom, no matter what the pundits say and the history books say, we all know -- and you need to take pride in the fact -- that you have given the Iraqi people an opportunity for a better life," said Erlandson.

Since the Iraq invasion, 67 people with close Minnesota ties have died in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently there are more than 1,000 Minnesota Guard troops deployed around the world -- most of them in and around Iraq. More than 400 of them are in Kosovo.