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Memorial Day observances: Proctor speaker says time in Iraq has made holiday more personal

What Scott Rohweder remembers best about the Memorial Days of his youth was watching the local honor guard ceremony.

Sure, school was almost at an end, and sure, a family day at the cabin was in the forecast. But first, there was a time for honoring and remembrance.

Rohweder, now a major with the National Guard and a recipient of the prestigious General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, spoke of these first Memorial Day memories, and how he came to understand what the day truly meant, during the annual Proctor Memorial Day observance on Monday.

Rohweder remembers watching as his father, Jim Rohweder, stood with the Proctor American Legion Post 106 Honor Guard as they fired their rifles during the city's observance, and then caravanned to six area cemeteries to honor the veterans buried there. Jim Rohweder has made those rounds every year since 1972.

It all seemed meaningful, but a bit abstract.

"I understood what it meant, but it didn't feel personal," said Scott Rohweder, originally of Proctor. It wasn't until one of the soldiers in his company was killed in combat in Iraq that he really got it.

The soldier's name was Sgt. Brent Koch of Morton, Minn. Koch was motivated, happy, and funny -- and he volunteered to deploy with Rohweder's unit as they provided convoy security for fuel and supply trucks moving throughout the country. Rohweder was the commander of Echo Company, 2nd Combined Arms Battalion of the 136th Infantry Regiment.

"Before each mission, me and the first sergeant would make sure everyone was ready to go, we'd talk with everyone for a little while," Rohweder said. He remembers that last conversation, how excited Koch was for an upcoming leave, and how motivated he was to go back to school.

The convoy left the base at Tallil operations center near An Nasiriyah in mid-July of 2006, and headed north. About 200 miles away, Koch's Humvee hit an improvised explosive device, and he was killed instantly, Rohweder said. Two others in the vehicle were critically injured.

Rohweder said he remembers how surreal it felt to see that information come across the communication lines at Tallil. KIAs: 1. WIAs: 2. And then Koch's battle code, identifying him as the fallen soldier.

"Not being able to be there," Rohweder said, was the hard part. That, and losing a good soldier at the beginning of a combat rotation, and just days before that soldier should have been on a plane headed home to Minnesota.

Rohweder's soldiers would find many more IEDs during their 15-month tour, one of the war's longest, and Rohweder's second tour in Iraq.

He returned home to Princeton, Minn., in July, and today Rohweder works at Camp Ripley. He frequently speaks with soldiers who want to return to service in Iraq -- some because they want to escape stresses at home, Rohweder said, and others because they still feel like they can work for their country and fellow soldiers. Rohweder supposes that he will return to Iraq someday. He thinks he still has something to offer.

And that's pretty much why Jim Rohweder returns to the same six cemeteries surrounding Proctor year after year to honor the war dead.

"I was fortunate to go through all of that without getting harmed in any way," Jim Rohweder said of his Vietnam experiences. "There were 54,000 guys who had the same dreams and aspirations I did, and they didn't get to do that. We need to remember those guys."

Jim Rohweder and the rest of the honor guard -- a group that ebbs and flows with age and illness and ability, but keeps on returning -- pulled into the Augustana Lutheran Church cemetery in Hermantown at just after 11:30 a.m. on Monday. He slipped on his white gloves, loaded his ceremonial rifle, and took his place as an anchor of the honor guard. A veteran placed the ceremonial wreath, Rohweder and his fellow vets fired three sharp shots toward the top of the cemetery's maple tree, everyone stood still while a bugler played Taps, and the ceremony was complete for another year.

A small crowd had gathered to watch, including Ralph Youngquist ofHermantown.

Like Jim Rohweder, Youngquist has been coming to this rural cemetery on Memorial Day for decades. He comes to honor his veteran uncle and his gold-star grandmother, Hilma. And he waits for Jim Rohweder and his rifle.

"It means quite a bit that they remember these families," Youngquist said. "It wouldn't be the same without them."

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