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Spec. James Wertish, 20, of Olivia was one of three Minnesota National Guard soldiers killed Thursday when their Basra, Iraq, base was attacked.

Arrest reported in Minnesota soldiers' deaths

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By Don Davis

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

STILLWATER, Minn. - An arrest is reported in a Thursday attack on an American base in Iraq that killed three Minnesota National Guard soldiers and injured another.

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The Associated Press reported that the Basra police chief said a man confessed early Saturday to the attack that killed Spec. Daniel P. Drevnick, 22, of Woodbury, Spc. James Wertish, 20, of Olivia and Spec. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, 27, of Cottage Grove. The attack appeared to be from a missile or mortar shell.

American military spokesmen would not confirm the arrest and offered few details of the attack. Officials did not say if the soldiers were on duty when attacked.

A fourth Guard member, also from Minnesota, was hurt, but military officials only said that the soldier's condition was "stable" and would release no other information.

All were part of the Stillwater-based 34th Military Police Company.

The attack came at 9:15 p.m. Iraqi time, 1:15 p.m. Minnesota time, Thursday on Contingency Operating Base Basra. The three deaths make Thursday the deadliest day for Minnesota soldiers in more than four years and raise the state's death toll in Iraq to 15. Three Minnesota soldiers died in a roadside bomb blast on Feb. 21, 2005.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the deaths were the first since the American military withdrew combat forces from Iraqi cities on June 30. Southern Iraq, in the Basra area, had been considered one of the country's calmest regions.

"I express my deepest sympathies" to the three families, Lt. Col. Michael Wickman, the rear detachment commander of the 34th Infantry Division said Saturday at the Stillwater Armory.

He said National Guard teams were helping families cope with the loss.

Wickman said he had little information about the attack. The Defense Department only would say it was "an indirect attack," which to the military means a missile, mortar or artillery attack.

Minnesota leaders expressed their sadness.

"Minnesota is a state where we wrap our arms around our brave men and women who make tremendous sacrifices to keep our nation strong and free," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said. "As we mourn their loss, let us also pay tribute to all of our soldiers who carry out their duties in the face of danger on a daily basis. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of these fallen heroes and with the entire Minnesota National Guard community, at home and overseas."

The head of the Minnesota National Guard, Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, also asked Minnesotans to take time to reflect "on the ultimate sacrifice made by these three brave men."

"We will never forget the dedication, loyalty and bravery shown by these soldiers for the United States of America and the state of Minnesota," the general said.

The three killed and one injured were part of a force of more than 1,000 sent from the Rosemount, Minn., based 34th Red Bull Infantry Division. While the Red Bull troops are based in Rosemount, Inver Grove Heights, Faribault and Stillwater, they come from 273 Minnesota communities and 13 other states.

The Stillwater unit has 180 soldiers who provide traditional police-type functions. But Guard officials said they did not know exactly what jobs were held by those killed and injured.

The troops left Minnesota for training on Feb. 13 and arrived in Iraq in May.

Besides Red Bulls, several other Minnesota National Guard units have personnel in Iraq. About 2,000 are in Iraq or other foreign locations. More than 14,000 soldiers and airmen serve in the Minnesota Guard.

Funeral services for the three soldiers have not been set.

Wilcox had plans to become a doctor and possibly get into politics like his hero Colin Powell, his pastor said.

Wilcox was "wise beyond his years" even as a child, a quiet man who picked his words carefully said John Magee, senior pastor at Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove, where Wilcox and his family attended.

And while Wilcox had many plans for the future, he was already living out some of them.

"He always wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and be in the military," said Magee, who was with Wilcox's family Saturday at Dover Air Force Base as they waited to meet the plane carrying Wilcox's body.

Wilcox's father died when he was a child, he said. Both his father and his grandfather served in the U.S. Air Force, he said.

"He was very proud to serve his country," Magee said. "He felt very moved to be part of something like that."

Wilcox had been in the Guard since 2006, and previously was in the Army Reserve.

After Wilcox's father died, his mother Charlene Wilcox, was left with four children to raise. During that time she got a college education, and became a teacher at Cottage Grove Junior High School.

"They are a very close family who had to lean on each other," Magee said. "This family is a success story."

From Christmas and Easter plays as a child to youth group as a teen, Wilcox was always active in church, and Magee said he was a devout Christian.

Magee said Wilcox was adamant that his military experience could vault him into political office someday, and he hoped to go from being an army medic to becoming a doctor.

"I had complete confidence that I would be going to him for physicals one day," Magee said.

Wilcox had a degree in biology from Metro State University and he served in a Cottage Grove-based medical company before transferring to the military police unit last year.

As for what he'll tell his congregation about Wilcox's death, Magee said tragic situations are evidence that though God is perfect, he operates in a fallen world.

"We believe that this is just part of eternal life and we believe Carlos spent it doing what he was designed to do," Magee said.

Drevnick was a Woodbury High School graduate who wanted to obtain a law enforcement degree. He attended Century College in White Bear Lake before leaving for Iraq.

He was back home in Woodbury earlier this month.

Drevnick and his father, Ken Drevnick, partnered in a drag-racing team, which took them throughout the Midwest.

His father and mother, Roberta Freese, survive.

Wertish enjoyed working on the family farm, the National Guard reported.

He was born in Redwood Falls and graduated from the Olivia high school. He enlisted in the National Guard in 2006.

The Guard said his fellow soldiers reported that Wertish "would literally give you the shirt off his back."

"He loved snowmobiles and playing Rock Band II," the Guard reported. "He could always make us laugh with him humor; we could count on him to improve our day."

His parents, David and Kim Wertish, survive, along with two sisters and a brother.

The Rev. George Schmit, pastor of St. Mary's Church of Bird Island where Wertish attended with his parents, acted as family spokesman.

"We would like to express our gratitude for the sympathy and prayers for James and our family and friends,'' the Wertish family said in a statement released through Schmit. "We are very proud of his service and dedication to our country. Please keep James and every fallen and injured solider and their family members in your prayers."

Patricia Drey of the South Washington County Bulletin and David Little of the West Central Tribune of Willmar contributed to this story.

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