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In special way, Southwest Minnesota memorial honors 19-year-old who died in Iraq

Kyle Miller1 / 3
Thomas Behrends explains how they asked permission from Gold star mother Kathy Miller from bird Island MN to use the likeness of her son Sgt. Kyle Miller for the center peace of the Armed forces Memorial in Brewster . Tim Middagh/Forum News Service2 / 3
The Brewster Memorial features a fallen soldier in the likness of Sgt. Kyle Miller as well as boots, rifle, bayonet and helmet representing veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Cold War, and Korea. Julie Buntjer / Forum News Service3 / 3

BREWSTER, Minn. — Never would Kathy Miller have imagined anything positive coming from her son's death 11-years ago in Iraq.

But just a few weeks after the 11th anniversary of the June 29, 2006, death of Sergeant Kyle Miller, his mother could say: "There've been positive things that have happened since my son has been killed.''

She was speaking of one that will last a very long time, and in a very big way.

Miller, of Bird Island, was among the many who gathered last Saturday as the small town of Brewster in southwest Minnesota dedicated a Veteran's War Memorial that honors all of those who have served.

The centerpiece of the monument is a pentagon pedestal holding a life-size, bronze statue of a kneeling, fallen soldier in the likeness of the 19-year-old Miller. He died on convoy duty as a member of the 1-125th Field Artillery Battalion, 34th Division. He was the son of Kathy Miller, Randy Miller and stepmother Candy Miller.

Exactly 21 footprints lead to the fallen soldier. The footprints are made from the boots once worn by Ryane Clark of New London, who died for his country while serving in Afghanistan on Oct. 4, 2010. Clark was the son of Tracy and Rick Clark of New London.

"I kind of put my heart and soul into it, turned it into my mission,'' said Tom Behrends, who spearheaded the memorial project in Brewster. Behrends served as command sergeant major for the 1-125th FA when Miller lost his life.

More recently, Behrends was among a group of veterans in the community of just over 500 who decided a few years ago that the town needed to erect a new Veteran's Memorial. It includes the soldier and a battlefield cross, including jump boots, a helmet, M-16 rifle and bayonet to symbolize those who fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Cold War conflicts.

A 1-to-200 scale, black granite replica of the twin towers commemorates the firefighters, police and paramedics who died rushing to aid those trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Laser-etched images of the planes that struck the towers and a female police officer who died in one of them faces Brewster's Main Street.

Inclined pavers leading to the monument commemorate the many veterans from the community who served through the years; they also tell the story of military veterans from the Revolutionary War to modern times.

"Amazing,'' is how Miller described the monument. She stood before the large crowd at the dedication ceremony and thanked them. She told them about the 19-year-old son who loved to flirt with the ladies, dance and always put into play the mantra he lived by: "If you make somebody smile they will live longer,'' said Miller.

Miller's chaplain in Iraq, the Rev.Corey Bjertness, told the crowd about how Miller approached him before he went on that fateful mission. "Do you believe in dreams?'' Miller asked the chaplain. He told him about a dream he had in which he dies in Iraq. Bjertness told Miller he could get him pulled from the upcoming convoy duty.

Miller told him he couldn't live with the possibility of someone else dying in his place.

His death happened very much as he had dreamed it would, according to Behrends. Miller was in the passenger seat of the Humvee and took the direct impact of the exploding roadside bomb, and likely saved the life of the driver because of it, his mother has learned. The driver of that Humvee and a first lieutenant who had served with her son have named children after Kyle, as has Kyle Miller's sister. The lieutenant's daughter was born on Kyle Miller's birthday.

Behrends said he realized the importance of creating a lasting remembrance for even the most recent of veterans on Pearl Harbor Day, when it struck him how subdued our observance of this anniversary has become with time. "How long will it be before they forget about us?'' he thought. He decided the twin towers and war on terrorism had to be part of the memorial, too.

Behrends said the original idea for the memorial came from the community of Kelliher, where a fallen soldier is on one knee before a cross. He wanted a modern soldier, but he didn't want a generic, nameless image. He contacted Kyle Miller's mother and asked her if the soldier could be in the likeness of her son.

So exact is the likeness, the sculptor included a tiny scar from an earring Miller had worn as a 14-year-old. The Timex Expedition watch Miller always wore displays 2300 hours 29 June, the time and date of his death.

Along with remembering those who served, Behrends said he hopes the monument can help with healing too, for all who know the harms of war. It was dedicated on a weekend during which the community also hosted a replica of the Vietnam Wall.

The new war monument has already brought the small town a lot of attention, and something more. Behrends drove into town for church the day after the dedication and couldn't help but notice the monument holding the fallen soldier he once led. "You look across the park and see him there and it's like, well, we've got a guardian angel in our town now. He's watching for us and all of Southwest Minnesota, really,'' said Behrends.

Kathy Miller and her daughter each left red roses on the monument.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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