For two decades, Gabrielson had lived in the same house, worked at the same factory job and been married to the same woman, with whom he had three children. In all that time, he was a member of an Army Reserve engineering unit down the road in Ellsworth, an obligation that led to his being sent to Iraq for what most here thought would be a low-risk assignment building and repairing bridges.
It is difficult for folks in Frederic to think he won't be back.
"We thought it was basically going to be OK, because he was building bridges and he was platoon sergeant, so you assumed he'd be in a building or a tent," said Peggy Gabrielson, his wife and high school sweetheart. "We just didn't assume he would be in any sort of fighting."
With the death of an American soldier yesterday in a grenade attack on a convoy in Baghdad, 32 have died from hostile action since President Bush declared May 1 that major hostilities had ended, and 150 U.S. personnel have been killed in combat since the Iraq war began. In what appears to be an increasingly sophisticated guerrilla war, U.S. troops are coming under fire a dozen times a day, military officials say. Yesterday, a surface-to-air missile missed a U.S. C-130 transport landing at Baghdad International Airport.
In Frederic, a town of 1,200, where neighbors hold potluck dinners weekly, Gabrielson's loss has meant more than deep sadness. For some residents, it has raised hard questions about the continuing conflict.
"They say quote, unquote, 'The war is over,'" said Diane Brask, 45, a church youth worker who has a son in the Air Force and lives on the dairy farm her great-grandparents settled after emigrating from Sweden in 1875. "I think it's going to take longer and cost more. When we saw Saddam falling, the statue falling, I thought, 'Wow, this is really going to be done soon,' but now it looks easier said than done."
Not all here are surprised that the war will take longer and cost more in lives and money than initially thought. Brask and others emphasize that they support the troops in Iraq, but that doesn't stop some from criticizing the politicians directing the war and occupation.
"During that first gulf war, there was a sense of bombs and being able to destroy buildings from far away. It's not. It's about human beings and children without families," said Nyla Greenberg, 48, a political independent who works nights in a nursing home. "And I do think that the politicians are not registering those kinds of individual costs."
Tall and brawny, Gabrielson, 40, was a country boy, good with his hands and deft in the outdoors. He liked beef jerky, Shania Twain and Ted Nugent, and the way his mother cooked a roast with potatoes on the side. He hunted deer and collected Remington Model 600 rifles. He was active in 4-H with his children.
During his 22 years in the Army Reserve, his unit, the 652nd Engineer Company, had been sent overseas twice before, to build bridges in Guatemala and Panama.
While friends and family knew Gabrielson was at risk in Iraq, they didn't think he was in serious danger. His unit built bridges, he repaired construction equipment. He asked his wife to send sunglasses - to give to smiling Iraqi children.
"We were more concerned about the family he left behind, rather than him," said Dan Conroy, human resources director of Nexen Group Inc., the industrial brake and clutch manufacturer where Gabrielson worked for 20 years. "We thought he could take care of himself. He always had. That's why this is hard for us. Nobody thought it would come to this."
A going-away party at a favorite restaurant was rousing, not somber. Neighbors teased him about the lack of showers in the desert, giving him small packets of moist towelettes.
In e-mail from Iraq, Gabrielson continued joking, saying he was kicking up sand to find Barbara Eden, star of I Dream of Jeannie. He sent home a picture of his base that showed a makeshift sign in front of a tent that read: "Camp Paradise." An arrow below it pointed to Wisconsin.
His elder daughter Vanessa, 20, a former Miss Frederic, tied yellow ribbons to a driveway fence - for no reason in particular, she said.
Signs of danger