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WAR WITH IRAQ

An Ambush in Southern Iraq Tears at an Army Town in Texas

March 26, 2003|Scott Gold and Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writers

FT. BLISS, Texas — Somewhere in the Middle East, U.S. Army Spc. James Grubb is lying in a hospital bed. Iraqi forces shot him in both arms and one leg. Shrapnel ripped through his other leg.

His wife considers herself lucky.

That's just one illustration of the dramatic turn in fortune shouldered by this sprawling, arid Army base in West Texas in the last two days.

About 4,000 of Ft. Bliss' 13,000 soldiers have been deployed to the Middle East, enough that apartment vacancies are climbing and restaurants report plummeting business. Still, morale soared here in the first days of the war. Then last weekend, part of Fort Bliss' 507th Maintenance Company was ambushed near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

At least 12 soldiers from Ft. Bliss are believed to have been captured by the Iraqis. Images of five of them, videotaped by their captors, have been broadcast all over the world.

Grubb, a 21-year-old diesel mechanic, was one of about 40 members of the 507th caught in the ambush, apparently when the unit took a wrong turn. Marines rescued about two-thirds of them, including Grubb.

At 4 a.m. Monday, he was able to use a cellular telephone to call his wife, Jennifer, from his hospital bed. He couldn't tell her much -- not where he was, what happened or when he would be home -- but he said he wanted to check on the couple's 2-month-old daughter, Jacqueline.

"I was thinking he might be dead. I was thinking he was going to come back paralyzed," said Jennifer Grubb, 18, as Jacqueline drank milk from a bottle and squirmed in her arms. "So in that sense we are very lucky. He said he was OK. He said he'll be fine."

The fate of his comrades is far less certain, and a dark, dour mood has descended on Ft. Bliss and El Paso.

"The relationship between the town and the fort is very close," said Jean Molloy, who lived in El Paso for 21 years while her husband, a veteran of three wars, was stationed there. "It's like the city grew up because of the military presence here. It's all so sad. These are just kids."

The Iraqi footage also included images of what appear to be dead U.S. troops. One of them might be 22-year-old Army Spc. James Kiehl, his family fears.

Like the rest of the 100-member 507th, composed of cooks, welders and other support staff, Kiehl wasn't supposed to see combat. He's a computer expert who joined the Army to earn a degree in computer science.

"You know how fathers nudge their kids to do better than they do?" said Kiehl's father, Randy. The Kiehls live in Comfort, Texas, a town of about 1,500 near San Antonio, best known for its antiques. "I repair big RVs, and I come home dead-dog tired and covered in dirt. We convinced him to pursue a more suitable field."

When he was shipped overseas in February, his family assumed he was headed to U.S. Central Command's forward headquarters in Qatar to provide technical support. The family was stunned to learn from a television report that Kiehl's 507th had been ambushed.

He is officially listed as missing in action. But, largely because he has not been one of the soldiers shown on television being questioned by Iraqis, his family is bracing for bad news.

"We've consoled each other in preparation for the worst," his father said. "He's a computer-repair technician, not an infantry soldier. As far as combat training, basic training was it for him."

Randy Kiehl hasn't slept since he learned about the ambush. He has worked the phones and scoured Internet images of dead U.S. troops in an attempt to learn his son's fate.

"I can't tell," he said after enlarging and studying frames of the video. "I just can't tell."

James Kiehl and Jill, his wife of one year, are expecting their first child next month.

The identities of other missing soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company emerged Tuesday.

Pvt. Brandon Sloan, 19, left Bedford Heights (Ohio) High School during his senior year to join the Army. Sloan wanted to serve his country and develop his job skills, relatives said.

In Washington, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-Ohio) said she spoke with Sloan's father, the Rev. Tandy Sloan, and offered prayers for his son's safe return.

Also missing is Pfc. Lori Piestewa, 22, of Tuba City, Ariz., the youngest of four children. The names of three others are not available. Officials on Monday identified Spc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., as missing.

*

Times staff writers John J. Goldman and Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.

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