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Borderland    Monday, March 31, 2003

Rescue effort for Bliss unit left 9 Marines dead, 8 missing

Diana Washington Valdez
El Paso Times

U.S. Marines were sent to rescue wounded members of the 507th Maintenance Company on March 23, the day the Fort Bliss unit was attacked in Iraq, but nine of the Marines who took part in the rescue effort were killed and eight others are missing, Pentagon officials said Sunday.

Meanwhile, efforts by the Red Cross to secure access to the American POWs have not succeeded, officials said Monday.

U.S. military officials also confirmed that the four bodies discovered a few days ago in shallow graves are of American troops, but have still not determined the branch of the military in which the troops served, much less their names.

"They have not been identified yet," Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Sunday from Doha, Qatar.

Owens also said Iraqi paramilitary forces known as Fedayeen were involved in the attack against the 507th Maintenance Company that left two of the 507th soldiers dead, four wounded, five captured and eight missing.

Sunday is the first time U.S. military officials revealed that Marines conducted a search-and-rescue operation to recover the wounded Army soldiers. All but one of the missing Marines was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

A U.S. Mortuary Affairs team was sent to investigate the site of the graves near Nasiriyah, which is in the general area where the attack occurred.

"The Iraqi paramilitary or irregular forces includes the hit squads and the Fedayeen that are loyal to Saddam Hussein," Owens said Sunday. "They are the ones that attacked the maintenance supply convoy." Coalition commanders said the Fedayeen were trying to cut the American supply lines reaching back to Kuwait.

Among the 507th's wounded are Spc. James Grubb of El Paso, and Cpl. Damien Luten of Indianapolis. Luten was shown in widely distributed photographs last week with a teddy bear tied to his stretcher as he was being taken to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.

He told his mother, in a story published in the Indianapolis Star on Sunday, that a group of Marines saved him and some other members of the 507th. "A couple of guys got shot up pretty bad," he told her.

A memorial service was held Sunday near Checkpoint Charlie south of Najaf for the two members of the 507th who were killed when their convoy made a wrong turn and drove into an area controlled by the Saddam loyalists. Spc. Jamaal Addison, 22, of Atlanta, and Pfc. Howard Johnson, 20, of Mobile, Ala., were killed.

"One week ago, things went terribly wrong," said the chaplain, Capt. Scott Koeman. Consoling the troops, he said, "Death comes hand in hand with war."

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, with the U.S. Central Command, said Fedayeen have changed in and out of uniform, used civilians, including children, as human shields, and were forcing Iraqi regular troops to fight on threats of death. U.S. troops who are moving toward Baghdad have run into strong resistance from these Iraqi paramilitary fighters.

Relatives of the Fort Bliss soldiers who are missing or are POWs said it's hard to deal with not knowing what has become of their loved ones.

"Because the Red Cross has not been able to get in there, we don't know how they're doing," said Claude Johnson, father of Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso, one of the POWs. "I know she's alive from the videotape and pictures that were shown, but I wish I knew more."

The International Committee for the Red Cross reported on its Web site Sunday that heavy bombing shook its offices in Baghdad. The Red Cross has been trying to gain access to the POWs since news of their capture aired last week.

The Iraqi government videotaped the 507th soldiers who were captured and also showed what were reported to be the bodies of U.S. soldiers. High-ranking U.S. military officials who viewed the tape said it was possible that the soldiers were executed after attempting to surrender.

Phyllis Hudman, mother-in-law of Spc. Joseph Hudson of Alamogordo, said the soldier's wife is in contact with the military daily, "but they don't have any new information for her."

"I'm sure it's the same with all the families," Hudman said. "Their hearts are breaking, just like ours."

Hudson, 23, of the 507th, was among the five Fort Bliss soldiers who were captured by the Iraqis on March 23. He was one of the soldiers who was interviewed and videotaped by the Iraqi government.

Alamogordo residents took part in a rally Sunday night to show support for Hudson and the rest of the troops in the war.

Ronald Voltz, a retired Navy veteran who organized the rally, said Alamogordo residents were asked to flash lights, wave U.S. flags, honk car horns or use other noisemakers. The city proclaimed Sunday as "Support our Troops/POW/MIA Day."

"We're doing this for the young man from Alamogordo who is being held as a POW in Iraq and for his family," Voltz said. "We have a lot of kids from all over the world in the war who are away from home."

Randy Kiehl of Comfort, Texas, father of Spc. James Kiehl, one of the 507th members who are missing, said he searches the Internet constantly and watches as much television coverage as possible for any information about his son or his unit.

Two Army officials visited his home Wednesday regarding his son, but "they did not have any more news other than what we already knew."

Randy Kiehl said there are 1,500 people in Comfort, Texas, "and I think I've heard from all of them. ... People are calling constantly to support us, and there are yellow ribbons everywhere."

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at dvaldez@elpasotimes.com; The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this story.

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