Olivia soldier who died in Iraq remembered as typical teen, dreamed of becoming a police officer
BIRD ISLAND -- Army National Guard Spc. James Wertish was remembered at his funeral Monday morning as a young man who "raised a little hell now and then" but was willing to lay down his life for others.
Wertish, 20, of rural Olivia, a specialist with the Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division, was killed July 16 in a missile attack at a military base near Basra, Iraq.
Two other Guard members were also killed in the attack. The funerals for Spc. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove, and Spc. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury, were held Friday and Saturday.
A fourth soldier, Jacob Benson, 22, of Willmar, was injured in the same attack and is recovering from his injuries at the base after spending three days at a hospital in Kuwait.
More than 150 Patriot Guard motorcycle riders stood guard with U.S. flags outside St. Mary's Catholic Church in Bird Island for the visitation and funeral Monday morning. They formed a perimeter around the church throughout the duration of the ceremony, saluting Wertish's family as they left the church.
Dignitaries in attendance included Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard.
Hundreds of mourners filled the church and about 250 more watched on a screen in the church basement. They heard the Rev. George Schmit describe a young man who had touched people's lives in the 10 days since his death.
At the beginning of the funeral, Wertish's parents, David and Kim Wertish of rural Olivia placed the young soldier's Bible and the cross that had hung in his bedroom on top of his casket.
"We are no longer isolated from the effects of war," Schmit said during his homily. "It has touched our lives in the deepest way."
Schmit urged Wertish's parents to hang on to the faith that has been a large part of their family's life.
"Dave and Kim, you raised a good son," he said. "Sure he raised a little hell now and then, tried your patience." Many in the congregation chuckled at the remark and again when Schmit suggested that some of David Wertish's hair loss could have been caused by his son James' teen years.
In a strong voice that sometimes thickened with emotion, Schmit talked about Wertish's confirmation. Each student about to be confirmed wrote his or her own creed, he said. Wertish's creed: "I believe God loves each one of us; he created each of us for a reason."
Wertish was trying to make the world a better place, Schmit said. He joined the National Guard and had dreams of being a police officer.
While Wertish got into his share of trouble as a youth, "deep down in his heart were the values and virtues that guided his life," Schmit said. "He thought more of others than himself."
To Wertish's parents, he concluded, "Today, he's not only your son but also your hero; he's a hero for all of us."
As if to illustrate Schmit's statement, groups of people stood along the road outside homes and businesses along the route from the church to St. Aloysius Cemetery in Olivia. They placed their hands over their hearts and held flags.
At the cemetery, the Patriot Guard members stood at attention with their flags as a crowd of mourners listened to prayers as Wertish was laid to rest.
Eric Ludy of the West Central Tribune contributed to this report.