In Texas, kin await word of MIAs

Remains found in Iraq, but identification depends on lengthy examination

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - U.S. military officials in Iraq have returned two of the 11 bodies found during the rescue mission of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and have ordered that the other nine sets of remains be shipped to the United States for examination to determine whether they are American war dead.

Officials said a preliminary examination in the field gave commanders sufficient evidence that the dead could be Americans.

That they were recovered at the hospital where Lynch, 19, was a prisoner was an indication that they might have been members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company at Fort Bliss, Texas, ambushed by Iraqi forces and still missing in action.

At the Pentagon, officials emphasized yesterday that they had not concluded whether any of the nine sets of remains were American and cautioned that positive identification awaited extensive forensic testing.

Examination and autopsy of war dead, especially those missing in action whose fates remain unknown, are among the most delicate duties of the military, and Pentagon officials were withholding information on the identification process until more was known and, if required, next of kin could be notified.

At Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, the base of the 507th Maintenance Company, where flags flew at half-staff and yellow ribbons adorned buildings and vehicles, families and friends of the missing braced for more information about the bodies.

Two soldiers were killed when part of the 507th was attacked March 23 near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq after making a wrong turn.

Five were listed as prisoners of war; Lynch and six others were considered missing.

Families of the missing said the lack of clarity about the identities of the bodies meant they had to remain resilient.

"If I didn't have humor right now, I'd be a bundle of worms," said Randy Kiehl, father of Specialist James M. Kiehl, 22, whose whereabouts have been listed as unknown by the Department of Defense.

"We have faith that James will be OK," said Kiehl, of Comfort, Texas.

Even as the relatives of missing soldiers waited for more details, about 100 troops from the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, which is normally stationed at Fort Bliss, left for Iraq early yesterday morning.

About 100 more soldiers from the unit, which uses Patriot missiles against enemy attacks by cruise missiles or low-flying aircraft, are to leave for the region today, officials said.

An additional 500 troops from the 31st Combat Support Hospital are expected to be deployed soon.

So far, about 4,500 soldiers from the base have been sent to areas in Iraq and around it.

Senior officials at Fort Bliss, whose red tile-roofed buildings once served as the base for Gen. John J. Pershing's hide-and-seek excursions against the Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, have tried to keep morale high despite the casualties.

"I believe George Orwell summed it up best when he stated, `We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm,'" Col. Wallace Hobson, chief of staff at Fort Bliss, said at a prayer meeting for soldiers in the 507th Maintenance unit.

The families of the unit's missing members and of the imprisoned soldiers reflected on the situation.

"We didn't think, since he was a supply specialist, we didn't think he would be on the front line," said Joel Hernandez, 19, the brother of Supply Specialist Edgar Hernandez, who was among five captured soldiers recently shown on Iraqi television.

"He's been there three years and a couple of months. He was about to get out in January 2004."

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