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Fort Bliss Families Mourn Fallen Soldiers - 2003-04-06


It is a time of mourning at Fort Bliss, Texas, home of the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company, which lost nine soldiers in a March 23 ambush in southern Iraq. The dramatic rescue of the 507th's Private First Class Jessica Lynch on Thursday led to the discovery of eight bodies, seven of which have now been identified as also being from her unit. There were also two other soldiers from the unit killed and five taken as prisoners. VOA's Mexico City Correspondent Greg Flakus, who was on hand to cover part of the 507th deployment in February, has this report from Mexico City.

Ever since the rescue of Jessica Lynch, families and friends of the other missing soldiers from her unit had been hoping that they might hear good news about their own loved ones. But Fort Bliss Public Affairs Officer Jean Offutt says those hopes have now been shattered. "Last night, we learned that, you know, the worst had happened," she explains.

Ms. Offutt says the Army is now providing grief counseling and other services to the stricken families of the lost soldiers. "That can go on for as long as six months, with some of the casualty assistance officers staying in constant touch with them, and then our professionals like chaplains, counselors and psychiatrists, and so forth," she went on to say. "If they need long-term counseling, that is taken care of as well."

Some family members have expressed dismay that their sons and daughters were involved in an armed clash, since the 507th is not a forward combat unit. Its role is to support the troops operating Patriot missile batteries near but not at the front. But Jean Offutt says all of the people in the unit are soldiers, and all have a role to play in combat situations.

"When a unit moves toward the front lines, their maintenance people have to go with them, because they are the only people who are trained to fix their equipment," she said. "There are a variety of military occupation specialties that they have within that kind of a unit."

Among those who died were a couple of west-Texas Mexican-Americans. Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35 years of age, came from Pecos, Texas, where he played American football before graduating from high school in 1986. Eighteen-year-old Private First Class Ruben Estrella-Soto of El Paso joined the army to further his education. He wanted to be an engineer.

Private First Class Lori Piestewa, 23, was the only woman among the dead and the only Native American Indian. She was a member of the Hopi Indian tribe in Arizona, and the news of her death is said to have shaken the entire community there.

Twenty-two-year-old Specialist Jamaal Addison of Roswell, Georgia, was described by family as a "mild-mannered child" who was serious about Bible study. Master Sergeant Robert Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland, Ohio was an athletic runner and family man. Private First Class Howard Johnson, 21, of Mobile, Alabama was single and lived with his parents prior to joining the army. Private Brandon Sloan of Bedford Heights, Ohio was a preacher's son, described by his family as kind and committed to service. Twenty-two-year-old Specialist James Kiehl of Comfort, Texas was a computer repair specialist whose wife, Jill, is expecting a child later this month. Sergeant Donald Waters of Salem, Oregon, was an aspiring writer of children's books. He leaves behind a wife and three daughters.

A memorial service for all nine is planned for Friday at Fort Bliss.