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The wife of a soldier from Largo killed in Iraq says he loved his country and died doing his job.

Everyone - plane mechanics, airport workers, news reporters - stood still and silent as the small jet taxied across the tarmac.

Some saluted, others placed a hand over the heart.

Kimberly Howdeshell, 34, held onto family as the plane's door opened and six soldiers in their dress uniforms lifted out a flag-draped casket. They placed it on rollers and moved a few steps away, giving Howdeshell some space.

She walked to the casket, hugged it tight and wept, her legs buckling beneath her.

Inside was her husband, the father of their 8-year-old son Robert, the man who made her laugh. She called him Bill, but in the Army he was Sgt. William R. Howdeshell, 37. He was killed in Iraq last week when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb.

Of all the things she could say about her husband - his love for his country, the way he always wrestled with his son or how he had the wittiest comebacks - Kimberly Howdeshell most wanted the world to know this:

"He was doing what he wanted. He loved his job and he died doing it," she said. "I'm extremely proud of what he's done."

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William R. Howdeshell was born in Springfield, Ill. At age 8, his family moved to Texas in search of work and then came to Largo when he was a teenager. Howdeshell ultimately joined Job Corps, a federal training program, and then enlisted in the Navy - fulfilling his dream of entering the military.

"Since he was 5 or 6 years old, that's all he wanted," said his brother Mark Mrdalj. "My mother used to tell us how he ripped the nipples off his bottles and then threw them across the bedroom like they were grenades."

He met Kimberly in Norfolk, Va., where he worked on Navy helicopters. She was drawn to his sense of humor and within a month, they married. Soon she was pregnant with Robert, who became the center of Howdeshell's universe.

"Robert was everything to him, Daddy's little boy," she said.

At times, the Navy took Howdeshell far from home, to Italy and Bahrain, before he left the service on Oct. 24, 2005. The next day, though, he enlisted in the Army.

"He loved defending our country," his wife said.

In January, he was sent to Iraq. In June, home on leave, he moved his family from Fort Stewart, Ga., to Pinellas County to be closer to his parents and his brother.

Howdeshell didn't like to talk about Iraq. "Hot and sandy," was all he would say.

On July 26, he was commanding a Humvee as it traveled through Saqlawiyah, Iraq, in the Anbar province. An improvised explosive device blew up along the road. Howdeshell and two other soldiers died.

Aside from Howdeshell, 161 soldiers from Florida have been killed in Iraq.

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Kimberly Howdeshell held onto his casket until an Army captain came to her side, took her arm and led her to a black limousine waiting nearby. Inside was Robert, wearing a necktie.

A deputy's cruiser was to lead the procession from the grounds of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport to a funeral home, where Howdeshell would be cremated. A reception for friends and family has been scheduled for Monday, followed by a military service on Tuesday. His remains will ultimately be interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The soldiers gently slid his casket into the back of the hearse and closed the door. As it began to pull away, the rain, which had stopped for the occasion, began to pour from the sky.

Everyone scattered for shelter.

Staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Jacob H. Fries can be reached at or (727) 893-8872.