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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

A Family Waits and Wonders

Kidnapped in Iraq two years ago, Matt Maupin is the only U.S. soldier whose fate isn't known. His Ohio hometown maintains a lonely vigil.

April 07, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

BATAVIA, Ohio — There are yellow ribbons tied around mailboxes and telephone poles and staked across rolling hills. They curl around trees and the handrails of a Clermont County office building. They flutter from the mirrors or antennas of school buses.

The ribbons are as bright as they were two years ago, when townspeople started putting them up after Carolyn Maupin's son was captured in Iraq. There are so many that as Carolyn drove across town on her way to Cincinnati last Friday, it looked like she was breezing past fields of plastic daffodils.

She arrived at the Yellow Ribbon Support Center and warmly greeted the volunteers. Carolyn walked past walls plastered with photographs of Army Sgt. Keith Matthew "Matt" Maupin, slipped into a back office and sat down by the phone.

When the Army officer called, as he does every Friday at 6 p.m., one of the first things Carolyn asked was this: Are you any closer to finding my son?

The reply was simple, painful and routine: No.

Since the U.S. invaded Iraq three years ago, Matt is the only kidnapped soldier whose fate remains unknown.

On April 9, 2004, while on a security detail protecting a civilian convoy west of Baghdad, Matt's unit was attacked. As bullets flew, the young man was abducted. Within days, the kidnappers released grainy video of the weary-looking 20-year-old, wearing camouflage and surrounded by five masked men. About three months later, another video was released of a man being shot in the back of the head and falling into a shallow grave. The narrator claimed it was Keith Matthew Maupin.

But the video never showed the soldier's face. Matt's body was never recovered. There has been no proof of his death -- not then, and not now, two years later -- so the military considers him to be alive.

"I wake up and think, 'Is this the day that Matt will call and tell me he's coming home? Is this the day that the Army will call and tell me he's dead?' " said Carolyn, 58, a transportation secretary and dispatcher at the West Clermont School District. "I go to bed wondering, 'How did Matt spend his day today? Did he eat? Can he sleep?' "

She and Matt's father, Keith, have pondered these questions for 728 days.

Officially, Matt Maupin is classified as "captured."

The Army doesn't consider him a prisoner of war, because Matt was not abducted by an opposing army and there was no standing government in Iraq at the time. Military officials have said they don't know who belonged to the faction that took Matt, or what his kidnappers wanted.

There is no one to contact to negotiate for his release, no way to ensure that his kidnappers are feeding and sheltering him in a humane way. What the military has is a name -- the Sharp Sword Against the Enemies of God and His Prophet -- and fruitless rumors.

Only one other U.S. soldier in recent history has been classified as captured: Navy Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher disappeared when his plane was shot down over Iraq in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. Neither he nor the ejection seat has been found.

When news of Matt's capture first broke, the country flooded the family with thousands of cards, e-mails and calls of condolences. Camera crews swarmed the streets of Batavia (pop. 1,600) and nearby villages, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Cincinnati. For weeks, reporters peppered residents with questions about the 6-foot-2, 220-pound former high school football player.

As time passed, both the headlines and public attention faded -- leaving Matt's family and the community isolated in their sorrow.

Army officials -- here this weekend for a charity fundraiser honoring Matt and the 28 men in the region killed in Iraq -- have been awed by the display of solidarity.

"It's so strange. Sad and strange," said Shari Lawrence, deputy public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Human Resources Command. "Nothing has changed there in all this time."

To a degree, not much has changed in the military's eyes either. The Army has promoted Matt twice. His paycheck is regularly deposited into his bank account, which remains untouched.

His car, a cherry red 1998 Mustang, sits in his father's garage. (Though Matt grew up and went to school in Batavia, his parents now live just outside of town.)

Last year, uniforms and gear found in Matt's footlocker in Iraq showed up on Carolyn's doorstep. A box with other personal belongings, including his reading glasses, sits in a corner of Matt's bedroom.

"I can't bear to open it," Carolyn said. "Matt will do it."

*

All of Carolyn Maupin's phones -- home, office, cell -- forward her calls to wherever she is. She doesn't want to miss a single new bit of information about her son.

Such vigilance brings calls both strange and strained. Antiwar protesters have asked why the family hasn't been more critical of the Army. Retired soldiers gossip about reports of Iraqis using torture. One woman even called to say a psychic had a premonition that Matt was alive in a desert.

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