On March 23, 2003, the 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss got lost in the Iraqi desert and stumbled into an ambush. Over the next three weeks, El Pasoans went through a variety of emotions as the fate of the soldiers became known.
Information was foggy in the initial days, but as time passed, it became clear that the toll was awful. Nine members of the 507th were killed. Iraqi forces captured six.
One of those captured, Jessica Lynch of West Virginia, was freed after nine days of captivity. The bodies of the fallen returned for somber funerals across the country, including two in El Paso.
On Palm Sunday, three weeks after their capture, Marines liberated the five remaining POWs from Fort Bliss. They returned home a few days later to a raucous welcome.
Five prisoners of war and eight missing
Originally published in the El Paso Times on March 27, 2003.
The Pentagon on Wednesday identified two 507th Maintenance Company soldiers from Fort Bliss who were killed in action, but they did not say how they died. Military officials also released the names and status of 13 other soldiers from the same unit who were attacked Sunday -- five prisoners of war and eight who are missing.
Fort Bliss officials on Wednesday said an additional four soldiers from the 507th were wounded and under U.S. medical care. They gave only one of those four soldiers' names.
Pentagon officials say the prisoners thought to have been executed are among the eight listed as missing. Final determinations that they are dead and how they were killed can happen only once the bodies are located, officials said.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he "heard reports that some of these prisoners have been shot outright."
Soldiers not killed in gunbattle
House Armed Services Committee members, who receive daily briefings on the war, said they are convinced the dead soldiers were not killed in a gunbattle.
"It was very apparent to me that a number of our soldiers had been shot in the head, and it seemed to be at close range," said U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a committee member.
U.S. military officials said the soldiers were ambushed by Iraqis when they took a wrong turn near An Nasiriyah in Iraq.
But the maintenance soldiers were lightly armed and should have been escorted by a combat unit, said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, who said he's asked the Pentagon for a detailed explanation of what went wrong.
Some of the soldiers who were captured identified themselves as members of the 507th in an Iraqi television video that was shown worldwide Sunday on television and the Internet.
Video shows soldiers with bullet wounds
Some footage, which was broadcast by Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, showed several U.S. soldiers with bullet wounds to the head. Iraqis allege they were shot during a skirmish.
Paul Oliver, father-in-law of Spc. James Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas, who is missing, said he is aware of reports that some of the soldiers were executed.
"We have heard that some of them were killed while they were trying to surrender, and that makes me mad," said Oliver, of Des Moines, Iowa. "They shouldn't put that out unless they can confirm it."
Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 22, of Tuba City, Ariz., is another 507th member who is reported missing. Her family referred questions to Hopi Tribe spokeswoman Vanessa Charles.
Charles said that Piestewa's family members are aware of news reports about the alleged executions but that the members are praying those reports are false.
"All we know officially is that she is missing, so we are hoping and praying that she turns up well. ... That's what we are believing," Charles said.
Red Cross not been granted access
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that the International Committee of the Red Cross still had not been granted access to the five Army soldiers captured Sunday and the two Army helicopter pilots from Fort Hood, Texas, captured a day later.
U.S. officials said shooting or wounding soldiers when they surrender is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and could be prosecuted as a war crime.
"Some of the biggest losses we've taken are due to Iraqis committing serious violations of the law of armed conflict in the Geneva Conventions by dressing as civilians, by luring us into surrender situations then opening fire on our troops," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday at a news briefing at the Pentagon. Transcripts of the briefings are posted on the Department of Defense Web site.
"To the families of those captured or missing, know that our thoughts and prayers are with you and with your loved ones and that we will do everything in our power to bring them safely home," Meyers said.
Nine soldiers who gave their lives:
Spc. Jamaal R. Addison, 22, of Roswell, Ga.
Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland.
Pvt. Ruben Estrella Soto, 18, of El Paso.
Pfc. Howard Johnson II, 21, of Mobile, Ala.
Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas.
CWO Johnny Villarea Mata, 35, of Pecos, Texas.
Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.
Pvt. Brandon Sloan, 19, of Bedford Heights, Ohio.
Sgt. Donald Waters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo.
Six soldiers who were captured:
Spc. Edgar Hernandez of Mission, Texas.
Spc. Joseph Hudson of Alamogordo.
Spc. Shoshana Johnson of El Paso.
Pfc. Jessica Lynch of Palestine, W. Va.
Pfc. Patrick Miller of Wichita, Kan.
Sgt. James Riley of Pennsauken, N.J.
Five other members of the 507th were wounded but not captured that day -- Sgt. Curtis Campbell, Cpl. Francis Carista, Spc. James Grubb, Staff Sgt. Tarik Jackson and Cpl. Damien Luten.
More 507th articles:
Trish Long may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 915-546-6179.
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: 507th Maintenance Company from Fort Bliss ambushed: March 23, 2003