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WAR WITH IRAQ / THE HOME FRONT

Hope and Despair for POWs' Families

TV images of captured Americans show that they are alive, but their fates remain uncertain.

March 25, 2003|Ken Ellingwood and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

LITHIA SPRINGS, Ga. — When they saw the video footage Monday of the helmet with the vampire insignia abandoned in the Iraqi desert, next to a downed Apache helicopter, Ronald and Kaye Young thought the worst.

Only a dozen pilots in the U.S. military wear that helmet. Their 26-year-old son, Army Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., was one of them. "I just knew it was him," Kaye Young said.

Then, hours later, another video on Iraqi TV: Their son, in pilot's coveralls. No bruises. No visible injuries. He was a captive of Saddam Hussein's regime. But he was alive.

"If I get him back," his dad said, eyes rimmed red, "it will be the best day of my life."

Young and his fellow crewman, Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., were the latest American captives paraded on Iraqi TV as a modern-day war trophy.

On Sunday, the Arab network Al Jazeera showed footage of several soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company, based at Ft. Bliss near El Paso, Texas. Some of them were alive and nervously answering an interrogator's questions, others were dead, apparently shot through the head.

For anguished friends and relatives, the footage was proof that their heroes had been taken alive -- the pilots after their helicopter developed mechanical trouble and was forced to land in central Iraq, the maintenance troops after their convoy was ambushed near the city of Nasiriyah in southeastern Iraq.

But the consolation of seeing their loved ones alive was swamped by fear of what might lie ahead for the prisoners of war.

Erika Johnson, whose older sister was taken captive over the weekend, found herself wanting to study the TV images -- but unable to bear more than a glance.

Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, a single mother of a 2-year-old girl, joined the military to get experience cooking; she dreamed of one day working as a restaurant chef. She told her family again and again that she was a soldier, that she could be deployed to the front at any time. But she was a member of a support unit, the 507th.

Her relatives thought of her as a cook. They thought of her as safe. "I don't think anyone thought she would be in the thick of it," Erika Johnson said from El Paso.

"I don't know what to do. I want to see more of the tape because I want to know she's OK. But I don't want to see the other side of it. She looked so scared," Johnson said. "I just hope they're treating her as they should."

The Pentagon had no information Monday on how the captives were being treated or where they were being held. A spokeswoman at Ft. Bliss would not even discuss how many troops from the 507th were taken captive, though a statement from the base Sunday indicated that "approximately 10" soldiers were missing in action.

The circumstances of their capture remained fuzzy as well. One military official at the base, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it appeared that the 507th -- which included truck drivers and welders, mechanics and supply clerks -- had taken a wrong turn as the convoy rumbled across southeastern Iraq to join the 3rd Infantry Division, which had requested maintenance support. The 507th soldiers were ambushed as they tried to turn around.

Though the 507th is not designated as a combat unit, supply and maintenance troops receive the same basic training as all other soldiers, learning not only marksmanship but also survival, evasion and resistance techniques in case of capture. They travel lightly armed: Each soldier carries a sidearm, and the convoy often includes .50-caliber machine guns.

"You shouldn't by any means assume these are civilians walking around in uniform to change the oil on trucks," said retired Lt. Gen. Don Lionetti, the commander who led Ft. Bliss during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "They're armed and able to defend themselves to some extent -- but not when they're surrounded by an armored column."

In theory, Lionetti said, supply and maintenance units are supposed to operate behind the front lines, in territory the U.S. military has secured. "But what we have in Iraq is a very fluid, open battlefield that's stressful and difficult to read. They took a wrong turn, and they ended up in trouble," he said.

"Every place you are within a combat zone, it can happen," added retired Col. C.J. Molloy, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who was based at Ft. Bliss for most of his career.

President Bush has said repeatedly that he expects captured U.S. troops to be treated humanely. But former POWs of Hussein's regime have watched the videos of captured troops with sickening dread. In the first Gulf War, about two dozen Americans were taken into Iraqi custody; military authorities have said all were abused, tortured or sexually assaulted.

"They've never been held accountable for what they did to us," said Daniel J. Stamaris Jr., a retired Army staff sergeant who was taken prisoner when his Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in 1991.

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