The Dead and The Wounded

Last spring three soldiers from northern Minnesota's Carlton County died in Iraq in one month's time

A teacher drifts by while they're talking and hands Mary a black-and-white picture of Matt taken in a photography class. She had just found it. The young man in the picture is disarmingly handsome, and the mothers huddle up and try to identify the two girls flanking him. Mary tries to figure out when it was taken. "He has his muscles there, so he was already training to go in," she says, running a nail over his biceps.

Matt Milczark was one of three members of the class of 2003 who enlisted together. He and his friend Moises "Moy" Langhorst had been planning to join for a long time. Derek Haugen, the son of a teacher at the school, was supposed to go too, but he injured his knee after he signed up. He eventually made it into the reserves.

One day, Inez's son showed up with Matt in tow and asked if he could go to Duluth with Matt to a Marine training exercise. No, Inez said, she needed him that day. "And Matt looked at me so sincere and said, 'Mrs. Syrett, are you ever going to let Derek go with me?' I said, 'He can go, but not this weekend.'"

Raoul Benavides

Mary thanks her for the story. "Mrs. Syrett," she repeats proudly. "He was so polite."

The following year, Derek Syrett joined the Air Force, along with Jason Nummela. Matthew Giersdorf joined the Army. Altogether five young men from Moose Lake's class of 2004 signed up. Carla and Inez say that one of the first things they did when they heard Matt had died was try to talk their sons out of going through with plans made months earlier to enlist.

"I grabbed my son and I said, 'Matt, you can't, you can't,' and he said, 'Mom, I have to,'" says Carla Giersdorf. He had already been told that he would be trained to be a medic. "He grabbed my face like this"--Carla mashes a palm into each cheek, explaining that this was how she got his attention when he was little--"and he said, 'Mom, you told me I'm a caring person and who better to be with someone when they die, to hold their hand? I know that I will never be alone, and that God will always be with me."

Across the table, Mary nods. Crying, she reaches across the table and takes Carla's hand. "I'm so proud of him," she says.

Inez's son had the bad luck to draw the dangerous specialty of combat controller, the first troops sent into any area to clear it out. She did not want him to go, she says, and she starts recalling out loud the things she said to try to convince him.

Mary waves her arms in a gesture that says "Stop!" and slaps her palms down on the table. The other mothers look a little startled, and Inez stops talking. The boys were right to go ahead and join up, Mary says. "I took such comfort in that," she says. She closes her eyes and draws a deep breath. "Such comfort."


Right from the start, the Blue Star mothers put Judy Langhorst on their membership roster and gave her a T-shirt. Mary refers to her as a Gold Star mother even though, as she adds sadly, Judy hasn't paid her dues or come to a meeting yet. Matt grew up with Judy's son, Moy Langhorst; the two boys served as soldiers in each other's made-up war games as children.

After Matt died, Moy wrote a letter home to his congregation saying he was as torn up as anyone, but he was trying to keep focused on the job at hand and would mourn later. His letter arrived shortly before the news that he had been killed by hostile fire on April 5, during the same siege on Fallujah that would cost Levi Angell his life three days later. Moy was 19.

Although the Langhorsts have preferred to do their mourning in private, a few details have emerged in news reports. Moy's father, George Langhorst, is an ex-Marine. The family is very active in the Lutheran church. Moy was at the top of his class academically, and a member of the school Knowledge Bowl team.

"When it happened a second time, I said, 'It can't,'" recalls Carla Giersdorf. "Everyone was in shock all over again, and they didn't have time to grieve." Both funerals were held in the same church, something Carla wasn't so sure about at first. "I was afraid since they were both military, they would be the same, but they weren't," she says. "Matt's was very Matt, and Moy's was very Moy."

In a way, Inez Syrett thinks Moy's funeral was tougher for their friends, because his casket was open. "The kids from the high school, you could see them come in and stop, shocked," she says.

On Mother's Day, Matt's classmates went out to Mary Nordlund's house and planted two flowering crabapples in her yard, one pink and one white. Later they brought a garden bench engraved in Matt's memory. They made another for Matt's father and one for Moy's parents.

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