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Families of Ft. Bliss Soldiers Begin Asking Hard Questions

March 27, 2003|Scott Gold and Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writers

FT. BLISS, Texas — Jamaal R. Addison, 22, a straight-A student who joined the Army days after graduating from high school to secure a future for his infant son, is dead.

And for what? That's what Addison's relatives wanted to know late Wednesday as they struggled to absorb the Pentagon's confirmation that the Army specialist had been killed in battle.

In all, military officials said Wednesday, 15 Ft. Bliss soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company had been captured or killed by Iraqi forces.

The numbers seem to rise each day, and tough questions are percolating at this west Texas military base.

"We just found out. My mind is just messed up right now," said Rodney Fisher, 23, an Amityville, N.Y., resident who went to high school with Addison and later became his stepbrother when his mother married Addison's father.

"I never thought there was a reason to go to war in the first place. This sure as hell doesn't make it any better. This was a good man. He didn't deserve this. This whole thing is nonsense."

Last weekend, about three dozen soldiers from the 507th -- cooks, welders, drivers and mechanics who provided support to a Patriot missile battalion and did not expect to see combat -- were trying to connect with an infantry division in southern Iraq. Near Nasiriyah, the site of some of the fiercest firefights so far, the group apparently made a wrong turn, military officials have said.

They were ambushed by Iraqi troops. U.S. Marines were able to rescue more than half of them. The military has confirmed that two were killed, eight are missing and five -- soldiers whose images were captured on video by Iraqi fighters and broadcast across the globe -- are prisoners of war.

The identities of six more of the soldiers were confirmed Wednesday. Those classified as missing include Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland; Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of El Paso; and Sgt. Donald Ralph Walters, 33, of Salem, Ore.

Killed were Addison of Roswell, Ga., and Army Pfc. Howard Johnson II, 21, of Mobile, Ala.

"Our mission is to nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead," Ft. Bliss chaplain Fred Hudson said in an interview Wednesday evening. "And at this phase, we are honoring the dead."

Hudson said families connected to Ft. Bliss suddenly have a host of questions for military officials, depending on the circumstances their relative is in. Families of the dead typically have questions about legal, financial and emotional concerns. Families of the wounded want to know when they can be reunited. Families of POWs want to know what kind of conditions their loved ones are being kept in.

"The families who are really hurting are the families whose loved ones' whereabouts are unknown," Hudson said.

"That's a horrible situation. You are waiting any day for the worst. That's a very difficult and very sobering thing to deal with."

One of those families is that of Walters, a decontamination specialist.

"After the military came to the door last night and told us, officially, that he's listed as MIA, it really hit," Walters' father, Norman, said Wednesday.

"I was stunned. It's like it's not real. I couldn't comprehend it. Today is bad. I'm really feeling down. I was shaving this morning and all of a sudden, I was crying."

Norman Walters was in the Air Force for 20 years, and Donald liked the discipline and the military environment while growing up in Colorado. Donald joined the Army in 1988, served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, joined the reserves and then reenlisted in the Army about a year ago. He and his wife, Stacie, have a 9-month-old daughter named Amber.

"About a week ago, we talked to him by phone," Norman Walters said. "He was notifying us that he was going to be going in very shortly. He was nervous about it, but he wanted to get in there. He was anxious to get in there and get it over with so he could come home."

Although the media have sought to report on the families of the captured and slain, military personnel asked reporters Wednesday to respect the families' privacy. In a statement, Ft. Bliss officials cautioned that statements from the families "could be used to coerce and manipulate soldiers who are being held prisoners of war."

The message appeared to carry weight with some, including the family of Dowdy, the master sergeant who is two years away from retirement. "I've been instructed by the military not to talk about my brother," Jack Dowdy said from his home in Hawaii. "Anything we give can be used by the Iraqis against him."


Times staff writer Zeke Minaya contributed to this report.

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