Nervous families can only sit, wait for word

Kin anxious for news of soldiers based at camp in northern Iraq

December 22, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - During nine months in Iraq, Sgt. Evan W. Byler already had survived two explosive blasts before he found himself yesterday at the center of a chaotic lunchtime attack that marked the deadliest single strike by insurgents since the war began.

Byler, 27, part of the National Guard's 276th Engineer Battalion based here, escaped without serious injuries again.

At her home in Middletown, Va., his grandmother took in reports that he was safe with a mixture of relief and ever greater worry.

"It's not very comforting, as many times as he's had close calls, and it just gets closer and closer," Millie Byler said last night. "You know, you just don't know what to say. It's war, and it's awful. And you just wish he would come home."

Byler's family got quick confirmation that he had survived the attack at a military base near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul because he was quoted in the first detailed news report from the scene. Hundreds of other anguished families in Virginia, Maine and Fort Lewis, Wash., could only wait.

Military spokesmen in Baghdad said 19 American troops had died in the attack, while Pentagon officials said 15 American soldiers and five American contractors were killed in the brazen lunchtime explosion. Horrified families made their own calculations - a reporter embedded with the 276th reported that two members of that unit had been killed; another embedded journalist from Maine reported that two members of that state's National Guard unit had died.

Also, the site of the attack was the post for Task Force Olympia, many of whose members are part of the Fort Lewis-based 1st Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, a Stryker Brigade, named for the armored vehicle the unit uses.

Lt. Col. Chester C. Carter III, a spokesman for the Virginia National Guard, said about 525 soldiers from the Richmond unit were stationed in Mosul. The group had made it nearly a year without a fatality, Carter said, and now family members could only wait to get word of who was lost.

"You've got 525 families, and the question is, which two out of those 525?" Carter said. "You think about the anguish those families are going through."

News reports from Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Jeremy Redmon and Portland Press Herald writer Bill Nemitz did not identify the dead or wounded from the Virginia and Maine units. Both reports said military officials were withholding the names until relatives could be notified.

Not content to wait, family members of the 600 soldiers with the Maine Army National Guard's 133rd Engineer Battalion swarmed to the unit's three family assistance centers and barraged guard officials with telephone calls, according to Chief Warrant Officer Mark Houdlette, a spokesman for the Maine National Guard.

All that the military officials in Maine could do was try to offer comfort and explain the Army's procedure for notifying family members of a casualty, he said. Once a report of an incident is written in Iraq, it must be transmitted to Fort Drum, N.Y., and then forwarded to the Maine Guard unit, which then sends a chaplain to the family members' home, he explained.

"Yes, they're all calling the family assistance centers at a vigorous rate. Everyone wants to know," Houdlette said. "But there's a system in place, and all we can do is follow it."

Millie Byler said she knew her family was lucky. Sgt. Evan Byler, one of her 13 grandchildren, was safe, and they knew it quickly, even though relatives could not reach him directly yesterday by telephone or e-mail.

In his report from the scene, Richmond reporter Redmon described how Byler was knocked out of his chair in the giant, tented mess hall by the blast but then quickly recovered, using his own shirt to tend to the bloody wounds of a soldier next to him. "It's not the first close call I have had here," the newspaper quoted Byler as saying in the moments after the strike.

Millie Byler said in a telephone interview that her grandson had suffered permanent hearing loss in a previous strike and had to wear a neck brace after a second attack. Worried by the earlier attacks, she said, she had stopped following news about the war and was stunned to learn yesterday that the soldiers were using a soft-sided tent as a mess hall.

"I did not realize they were eating in tents. I thought they were in something more secure than that," she said. "I was really shocked when I found out how exposed they were."

She said Byler had not wanted to go to war - a former enlisted soldier, Byler was working as a truck driver when his National Guard unit was deployed early this year - but he tried to stay upbeat. The enthusiasm he had mustered has waned in recent months, she said. "He said don't even believe what you see in war movies - it's chaos," Millie Byler said.

Sun staff writer Robert Little contributed to this article.

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