When Jesse Lhotka showed up for a blind date holding a single white rose, his future wife thought he was too young for her _ six years her junior. But he proved to be extraordinarily mature, having helped his single mother raise five younger siblings. The couple wed in September, just before Lhotka left for Iraq. "Jesse, you are the best thing that ever happened to me," his widow, Stacey, said in a letter read at his funeral. Lhotka, 24, helped evacuate two soldiers whose Humvee had flipped over before he became one of three Minnesota National Guardsmen killed by a roadside blast Feb. 21. The Alexandria, Minn., native was based in Montevideo, Minn. As a kid, Lhotka built tree forts, created plays and invented games for his siblings. He played football in high school and was class president during his sophomore and senior years. He joined the National Guard in 1999, and it helped pay his way through St. Cloud State University. He graduated with a degree in finance and was working as a credit analyst for a leasing company before leaving for Iraq. In a letter read at his funeral, his mother thanked him for all of his love and respect, and for bringing Stacey into the family. "I still have six children, and now one angel," she wrote.
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Published in The Washington Post on Feb. 24, 2005.