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Josh Hanson's memory lives on at Maplewood State Park

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On a hot, breezy day on a knoll overlooking Lake Lida, dozens of people - many of them strong men tested by combat - found themselves blinking away tears from a light Saturday afternoon.

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It wasn't the strong, late summer sun that tugged at their hearts and loosed salty trails down their cheeks. It was the bright memory of Staff Sgt. Joshua Hanson, a man many said was a light in their lives and souls.

Hanson, a Dent-area resident killed two years ago while on duty in Iraq, was remembered with the dedication of a memorial and a new picnic shelter with his name.

Several hundred people, including his family, members of Hanson's platoon, current and former National Guard officers and enlisted men and women, and the local chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders, gathered to honor Hanson, who loved to hunt in the rolling hills, fish in the prairie lakes and joke whenever possible.

Joshua's memory "fuels the lights in our hearts. It made 'em burn bright," his brother Jake said. "We know his light is shining here today."

Hanson died Aug. 30, 2006, when the Humvee he was riding in was blasted by an improved explosive device. He was 27.

His father, Bob Hanson, the manager of the park southeast of Pelican Rapids, said the day was a whirl of emotions that made it difficult for him to speak. But he was grateful to the Friends of Maplewood State Park, who raised the money to build the shelter and decided to dedicate it to his son.

"The whole project has kept him close," Bob Hanson said before the ceremony.

Later, he thanked the gathered throng, saying, "The light in my heart is burning very bright today."

Joshua Hanson's comrades in Company A, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, remember him as a modest and funny man.

"His personality was one of a kind," said Justin Knopf, who served as a staff sergeant in the same platoon as Hanson in Iraq. "I think I could sit here an hour with funny stories about Josh."

Luke Schmitz, who lost part of his right leg in a blast from an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Iraq, said Joshua was "pretty modest. I think he'd make fun of this," adding, "he always put a smile on everyone's face."

Alfred Honer, a sergeant, called the shelter and the ceremony "appreciation for a guy who deserved it."

The ceremony included remarks by the head of the Minnesota National Guard, Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, a VFW honor guard and a band playing patriotic tunes.

Patriot Guard Riders circled the shelter holding more than 40 American flags that fluttered in the breeze off Lake Lida.

David Woodward, the ride captain for the event, said the group wanted "to show the family that there are Americans who do care what happened to their son."

Dave Knopf, emcee of the ceremony, was Hanson's first sergeant when he joined the Guard. He said the shelter would be a good place for Hanson's mates to gather in coming years to find "peace amongst each other."

Ryan Puttbrese, who served with Hanson and had also been wounded while on duty in Iraq, agreed.

"It's really a nice setting. A quiet place," he said.

It's also a place, Puttbrese added, that says to soldiers and their families "you will not be forgotten."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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