When the War Began (Part 4 – Final)

Posted in: When the War Began Series | By: | March 22, 2009

“One owes respect to the living; but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth.” – Voltaire


An eighteen vehicle convoy does not easily make a U-turn. After Captain Troy King had passed the word to all of his soldiers to “lock and load” their weapons, he ordered the string of vehicles to head back through the city they had just left. Iraqi civilians had been tracking the 507th Maintenance Company’s convoy as it drove north, out of Al Nasiriyah, and King must have begun to worry about attack. His soldiers were properly armed, each with 210 rounds for their M-16s, a thousand rounds had been acquisitioned for the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, and 45 rounds for an M9.

But King had made a mistake.

The 507th had been equipped with what are known as “crew served” weapons, larger guns for attacking a heavily armored enemy. These included the .50 caliber machine gun and a 40 millimeter MK-19, but also hand grenades, pyrotechnics, and AT-4 anti-tank weapons. Possibly, because they did not expect to be passing through hostile territory, Captain King had not distributed the more lethal weapons and ammunition to the troops of the 507th. According to the Army’s draft report on the incident, King had ordered pyrotechnics, hand grenades, and the AT-4 anti-tank weapons “consolidated and secured,” which meant they were located in one vehicle. This decision was to contribute to the deadliness of what happened to the convoy.

Darrell Cortez, a Fort Bliss soldier who considered James Kiehl of the 507th his best friend, was baffled by the fact that those weapons were not in the hands of the troops.

“No soldier was issued grenades or rockets,” Cortez said. “Those, at that point, were still secured. I’ve not seen a report as to why that was the case. I don’t know whose decision it was to keep them locked. I don’t know if it was Captain King or someone higher up who decided, at this time, we will not need these armaments.”

Whoever it was, they turned out to be very wrong.

As the convoy began to make a loop to return in the direction opposite of what it had been traveling, a ten ton wrecker ran out of fuel, and there was no longer any reserve fuel in the tanker truck accompanying the 507th because the company had been moving for three straight days. King ordered all vehicles to stop; the wrecker was refueled using five gallon cans, emergency fuel carried on each truck and Humvee. Iraqis in personal vehicles, and talking on cell phones, watched the refueling from a relatively close distance for the next forty minutes. A few of them drove past the stopped Americans.

Finally refueled, the 507th headed back to the south, and turned left at Highway 16. First Sergeant Robert Dowdy, who was in the last vehicle, radioed Captain King to report they were beginning to take small arms fire. King ordered all trucks and Humvees in the line to accelerate, as trained, to get out of the ambush. This was the point where the convoy began to break into smaller groups because of the varying size, and acceleration rates, of the vehicles. In the front of the column, Captain King was racing eastward to lead the 507th out of the gunfire. Probably because of a high rate of speed, or simple confusion caused by combat, King missed the intersection with Highway 7/8, where he was to take the convoy back to the south.

Sergeant Dowdy radioed his commander to inform him he had passed the critical turn. In the middle of the string of big trucks, Specialist First Class Anthony Pierce, told his driver, Specialist Timothy Johnson to speed up so they could catch Captain King, and give him directions back to the intersection. By the time this had happened, all of the vehicles had passed the turnoff to Highway 7/8, and the fierceness of Iraqi fire on the passing column began to build.

Specialist James Kiehl of Comfort, Texas, sat in the passenger seat of a slow, five ton truck with a trailer, being driven by Specialist Jamaal Addison. Bullets pinging off the side were hardly heard over the noise of the straining engine. Kiehl, like all the others in the 507th, had not expected this kind of danger. Soldiers in the maintenance company had told their families not to worry about them because they were “in the rear with the gear.” Kiehl and Addison had to be wondering where they were going, and what was happening. The limited supply of walkie-talkie radios and batteries left most of the soldiers without information on convoy movement. But Kiehl knew enough. He was in combat now, a completely unexpected assault, and neither he, nor most of the others in the 507th were really prepared to fight.

“These people were technicians, mechanics,” Kiehl’s father Randy explained. “Did you ever hear them say the words ‘combat specialists’?”

They were isolated, and alone. No combat infantry had been provided for the maintenance soldiers, who, by design were certain to be left behind as the entire war machine hurried toward Baghdad. Military planners apparently believed that by the time the maintenance crews passed through an area that it would have been secured by the army advancing in front. The decision not to attach a combat unit may have also been a result of cost-saving pressures from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who envisioned Iraqis greeting U.S. troops as their liberators. Instead, James Kiehl and the rest of the 507th were being met with a wall of gunfire.

Back in Des Moines, Iowa, Kiehl’s wife, Jill, who was seven months pregnant with the couple’s first son, was already beginning to confront the possibility that the president may have misled the nation into an unnecessary war. Her husband, however, had no choice but to serve, even if his unit was exposed by bad planning, nor did it matter that the president may have been less than truthful about the reasons for invading Iraq.

“It’s his commander-in-chief. It’s his head boss,” Jill Kiehl explained. “You don’t question what he said. You just do it, whether you like it or not, for personal reasons. If it is true that a lot of the evidence that they based the war on was made up, it’s gonna upset me a lot. All of this could have been prevented and I could have had a normal life with my husband.”

As the lead vehicles began to pull away, a five ton tractor trailer became disabled, most likely by Iraqi weapons fire. A private, Brandon Sloan, was driving and Sergeant Donald Walters was his passenger. They were being followed by a truck pulling a water tank. While under fire, the two soldiers in the trailing vehicle, Private First Class Patrick Miller and Sergeant James Riley pulled up alongside of Sloan’s truck and executed a “moving combat pickup” of Sloan. Walters, on the far side, did not get into the rescue vehicle, and the U.S. military has no definitive information about his fate.

The Army’s draft report only added mystery to that part of the 507th’s story.

“It is unclear whether SGT Walters was picked up by others in the convoy or remained in the area of the disabled tractor-trailer. There is some information to suggest that a U.S. soldier, that (sic) could have been Walters, fought his way south of Highway 16 towards a canal and was killed in action. SGT Walters was, in fact, killed at some point during this portion of the attack. The circumstances of his death cannot be conclusively determined by available information.”

Still taking fire as they moved eastward, Captain King appeared to be searching for a flat, open space along the highway, where the big rigs could be turned around. The convoy had to travel three kilometers past the missed intersection before there was enough room to execute a U-turn. A wrecker, which was pulling a five ton supply truck, very quickly got stuck in the sand. George Buggs and Edward Anguiano, the wrecker crew which had helped the 507th retrieve some of its trapped trucks a day earlier, were left behind as the rest of the convoy made an arcing turn and headed back to the west.

“This is where we start splitting up into different groups,” explained Sergeant James Riley, a 31 year-old machinist. “Because you can’t afford to sit there and wait while somebody else turns around. No, you don’t do that.”

1st Sgt. Robert Dowdy, at the tail end of the column, had his Humvee pull up next to the stuck wrecker, and Buggs and Anguiano jumped in. Privates Lori Piestewa and Jessica Lynch were also in Dowdy’s vehicle. Piestewa, who was driving for Dowdy and Lynch, had been traveling in the supply truck being towed by Buggs and Aguiano, before it had become disabled. Dowdy keyed his radio and told Captain King he had picked up the two men. Incoming fire was bristling up and down the sides of their vehicles. Dowdy urged King to get the convoy out of the city as fast as possible. Out the back of the Humvee, either Buggs or Anguiano, Dowdy wasn’t sure which one, had picked up the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon and began returning fire at the Iraqis.

King was down to fifteen vehicles, and with bullets and tires kicking up dust, there was increasing confusion. The differing speeds with which the big trucks and smaller Humvees had turned around and their varying acceleration rates had caused large gaps to appear in the convoy. The distance between them and the rest of the convoy was expanding very quickly for Joe Hudson and Johnny Mata, who were driving the 507th’s remaining wrecker and towing a giant tractor-trailer rig. They had too much weight and not enough horsepower to close ranks with the rest of the column. Forty five miles per hour was about their maximum speed.

Just a few months earlier, Johnny Mata had moved his wife and their two children into their first new home. Built on the morning side of the Franklin Mountains in El Paso, the Matas were still unpacking boxes when Johnny, a chief warrant officer, got his orders to Kuwait, and then onto Iraq. In front of him, Mata saw the convoy was breaking into three groups because of the discrepancies in size and speed of the trucks and Humvees. There was nothing to do but for him and Hudson to go as fast as possible and hope the fifteen tons of steel and rubber they were driving might keep up.

But they did not.

When Nancili Mata, Johnny’s wife, was briefed by the Army about what happened to the 507th, she was astonished to learn her husband had no way to speak with the soldiers in the other vehicles, who were outrunning his rig.

“Those devices, they didn’t have enough,” she said. “They only had five, the walkie-talkies. The soldiers went out and bought some extras out of their own pockets. They told us that at the briefing.” She turned her palms upward, and lowered her chin, angry at the absurdity of American soldiers using their own modest earnings to equip themselves for war.

“I can’t remember, but they had five in total for the whole 507th, and the soldiers themselves went and bought some more, and that was one of the mistakes they were going to correct, and they said it themselves, they were going to correct it.”

Out front, Captain King, and his driver, Private Dale Nace, led two of the 507th’s trucks on a dangerous run back down through the heart of Al Nasiriyah. Behind King’s Humvee was a five ton tractor trailer with Sergeant Joel Petrik and Specialist Nicholas Peterson. Specialist Timothy Johnson and Specialist First Class Anthony Pierce were in the next vehicle back, a five ton truck with an attached trailer. Most of the Iraqi fire they received was coming from the west side of the road, and Petersen, Pierce, and King were returning fire out the passenger side of their vehicles. Cars and debris had been positioned in the middle of the road to slow the Americans, and make them easier targets. Nace, Petrik, and Johnson drove with one hand through the obstacles, while shooting out the window with their M-16s, when they were able to get their guns to function.

Several times, the soldiers found themselves unarmed when their weapons jammed. The Army report blames the malfunction of the M-16s on “inadequate individual maintenance in a desert environment.” This was possible. The 507th was a maintenance company, and the soldiers very likely did not expect to see combat action. However, there had not been more than a few minutes since they had crossed the Iraqi border during which they might have taken a break to clean a weapon, and their hasty run through the Iraqi deserts had stirred up constant clouds of sand and dust. By the time their weapons failed, the troops in the 507th had been on the move for three consecutive days. They might have reasonably complained that they had been equipped with weapons by their commanders that were not meant to function in a desert battle.

Captain King and his small group made it back through Al Nasiriyah without injuries. South of the intersections of Highways 8 and 7/8, King came upon tanks from Task Force Tarawa of the U.S. Marines 8th Tank Battalion. He told them the 507th had been split up in an ambush, and most of his soldiers were under deadly Iraqi fire. The Marines immediately moved their heavily armored tanks northward on Highway 8 to rescue the 507th. Unfortunately, those same tanks were originally supposed to provide the armored protection for the Marine’s Alpha and Charlie Companies in their mission to take the two bridges on the north side of Al Nasiriyah, which crossed the Saddam Canal. The two Marine companies, later that morning, faced a brutal assault from the Iraqis, and there were no tanks to assist them in the battle.

Before the tanks had reached them, enemy fire appeared to dramatically increase on the second group of vehicles. The three tractor trailers, one large fuel truck, and a Humvee with a trailer, were twisting and weaving their way through the Iraqi obstacle course on Al Nasiriyah’s main street. Numerous rocket-propelled grenades and unceasing small arms fire was now coming in a consistent volley from both sides of the road. In one of the tractor trailers, Corporal Damien Luten jumped up to man the 507th’s only .50 caliber machine gun, mounted on top of the truck’s cabin.

The weapon failed.

“I was up there, and I think of it now, kind of thinking of the movie The Matrix,” he said. “And you see the bullets, flying. And it, it seems like it’s slow motion. The bullets were flying. I can actually see them, as they pass me, uh, over my head, back in front of the vehicle. It seemed like they were going that slow.”

Without the protection of the larger gun, Luten reached down for his M-16, and was shot in the knee. Trying to fire the automatic weapon, Luten discovered it jammed. The weapon, he said, had been cleaned every time the convoy had stopped. Luten, though, never fired either his M-16 or the larger machine gun. Both had failed him in combat. Private First Class Marcus Dubois pushed the bob-tailed rig forward, sweeping between old cars and truck tires strewn across the road. At one point, the Iraqis had pushed a bus in front of the Americans.

Ahead of Dubois, a similar truck took numerous hits from the Iraqis, and rumbled to a stop in the oppressive gunfire. Specialist Jun Zhang, who had been driving, jumped out and ran back to climb onboard Luten and Dubois’ rig. Curtis Campbell, the sergeant who had been riding with Zhang, grabbed Zhang’s M-16, and struggled with the weapon, trying to get it to fire. He was shot in the hip, and went down; briefly, before a Humvee crew snatched him from the street. Staff Sergeant Tarik Jackson, inside the Humvee, had already been wounded as he returned fire, and he suffered further injuries while rescuing Campbell. The Humvee, with a man identified by the Army only as “CW3 Nash” at the wheel, was disabled by Iraqi fire, not far from where it had stopped to pluck Campbell from potentially deadly Iraqi attacks.

With Nash, Jackson, and Campbell stranded in the Humvee behind them, Zhang, Dubois, and Luten turned around in the midst of the firefight. They had crossed the Euphrates River Bridge, and a few kilometers away the wavy silhouette of Captain King’s parked Humvee and two trucks was visible. The three men were determined, being that close to safety, they were not going to leave behind the other three soldiers in the disabled Humvee. As they struggled out of their doors, Matthew Rose, the supply officer, and a father of six children, was making a serpentine run, taking his truck through RPGs, debris, and other large obstacles. Corporal Francis Carista, shooting out the passenger window with an M-16, was struck in the heel by a piece of shrapnel. Rose’s rig, battered by the assault, sputtered to a stop near the Humvee, where the other six soldiers had gathered to seek protection.

“My vehicle was being hit. It was blowing smoke everywhere, and at least one of my tires was flat. I didn’t expect to be in that position,” Rose said. “Proper military doctrine says that if you’re in an ambush, drive out of the ambush. I just prayed and drove. I kept saying, ‘Lord, I don’t want to die. I want to see my kids.’”

Miraculously, the gargantuan fuel truck driven by Private First Class Adam Elliot also made it through “ambush alley.” James Grubb, a specialist, had been struggling to return fire out the tanker’s window with his jammed M-16, and was wounded in both arms by the time the fuel truck lumbered up next to the other soldiers of the 507th, just south of the Euphrates River Bridge. After his truck had crossed the river, Rose, who had once served as an Army medic, began to lead the other medically trained soldiers in treating the seriously wounded. Limping and dragging each other, the soldiers made it into a ditch as Iraqis directed more fire at them from behind sand berms and non-descript buildings.

“When the mortar fire started to get closer,” Rose explained, “We tried to get all the people off the road. Corporal Luten couldn’t walk, so I tried to carry him but couldn’t, so I actually dragged him from the road. I was dragging him when the Marines arrived.”

Down off the road, as they waited, the ten soldiers of the 507th heard the immediately recognizable clanging sound of approaching tanks. Earlier in the day, they had passed Iraqi T-55 tanks on the side of the road, their turrets facing away, and they suddenly feared those tanks were rolling up to end their lives. Instead, they turned out to be the Marines from Task Force Tarawa, who rotated their turrets in the direction of a few buildings where Iraqi fire had been concentrated. After those structures were blown up by the tanks, the Marines were able to evacuate the 507th’s wounded, but not without suffering a few KIAs of their own.

At the rear of the 507th convoy, however, things were much worse.

The soldiers driving the larger trucks had experienced a great deal of difficulty in executing the final U-turn, and had slipped well behind the two groups leading the convoy. As Specialists Edgar Hernandez and Shoshana Johnson approached the intersection to take them back south through Al Nasiriyah, their five ton tractor-trailer came under heavy Iraqi fire. The Iraqis had put a truck in the road to block passage, and Hernandez, who was driving, swerved to go around it and lost control of his rig when he veered to the right and went off the road. Hernandez had been ducking beneath the dashboard to avoid flying bullets, and apparently was unable to prevent jackknifing his truck, leaving the trailer protruding into the road.

“I got stuck in the mud,” he said.

First Sergeant Robert Dowdy, who had remained with the slower trucks to lead them back to safety, ordered his driver to race ahead and catch the vehicle carrying Private First Class Patrick Miller and Sergeant James Riley. Over his radio, Dowdy called out to Miller to “increase speed and keep moving.” Dowdy had his driver, Private First Class Lori Piestewa, pushing their Humvee to near maximum speed as every enemy gun along the road appeared to be tracking their path.

Joseph Hudson, in the wrecker with Johnny Mata, saw the Humvee “fly past.”

“Machine gun fire,” he remembered. “There was people firing at the Humvee. And there was, everywhere you looked, somebody was firing. There was return fire from the Humvee, and they just disappeared into the distance.”

According to Miller, the Iraqis had set up an ambush on the corner of the highway’s intersection, and they were “unloading on anything that turned at their corner.” Somewhere, in one of the trucks, was the weaponry that might have ended the ambush. Dowdy had to be wondering why the pyrotechnics, rocket-propelled grenades, and the anti-tank weapons had been “consolidated and secured.” If he’d had the heavy ordnance, he and the soldiers at the back of the convoy might have been able to take out the guns being leveled at their trucks. But they had no access to those weapons, and their best hope for survival was to run. The Army’s report of the incident did not address this controversial question of weapons consolidation.

Moments later, the Humvee in which Dowdy was riding with four other soldiers, was hit by Iraqi weapons fire, and slammed into the back of Hernandez’ stalled tractor-trailer at a high rate of speed. The impact was loud and forceful, and was another indication to the young soldier that he might not live much longer. Hernandez, who’d only barely worked up the courage, before he left for the war, to ask his eighteen year old high school sweetheart to “be his girlfriend,” was facing death.

“There was one point where I just gave up,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is where I am going to die.’ I remember during the fight, I was holding my arm because I got shot and my weapon got jammed. That’s when I thought I was going to die. I thought, ‘What will my parents say after they find out I’m dead?’ In those last minutes, I just gave up. I was praying.”

The jolt of the Humvee colliding with his truck’s trailer may have interrupted Hernandez’ contemplation of his mortality.

“And all of a sudden,” he said, “Somebody hit us from behind. And the whole truck moved. I turned back, and then I saw the Humvee.”

Dowdy’s Humvee, with Lori Piestewa at the wheel, Jessica Lynch, and George Buggs and Edward Anguiano as passengers, was crushed beneath the trailer. Buggs and Anguiano were, essentially, victims of their own kindness. They had remained behind their own group, the 3rd Forward Support Battalion, to help pull the 507th’s stranded trucks out of the sand a few days earlier. The Army was unable to provide details of how they died, but, if they had not assisted the 507th, they would have never ended up in the deadly ambush and collision, which took their lives.

Edgar Hernandez and Shoshana Johnson saw that there was “no movement whatsoever” by any of the people inside of the Humvee. Johnson, who was later captured by the Iraqis, said she felt “heartbreak ‘cause you just knew that they were all gone.”

Still out on the road, Joe Hudson and Johnny Mata were pushing through the fog of bullets and RPGs, their truck becoming more and more debilitated by Iraqi guns. Mata, trying to make his jammed M-16 work, was attempting to return fire from his position in the passenger seat, while Hudson struggled to stay on the road. He wanted to get the SAW, the Belgian-made M249, to work, hoping he might shoot as he drove. This weapon also failed to operate. Sometime during their scramble, Mata stopped firing, though Hudson was unable to say when the Chief Warrant Officer was killed. He was too busy trying to get them out of the death trap.

“At this point,” he said, “I probably have four of my eight tires shot out by that time. There’s just smoke just flying everywhere, rubber flying everywhere.”

Fairly quickly, Hernandez’ and Mata’s big rig came to a full stop. The Iraqis quit firing, walked up, opened the door of the truck, and pulled out Hernandez, taking him prisoner. Johnny Villareal Mata, whose wife, sixteen year old son and seven year old daughter were in El Paso settling into their new home, had been killed in the combat service he had sought.

His family was uncertain exactly how Mata had died.

“After he got shot in the leg,” Mata’s wife, Nancili said, “They told me he got shot in the back of the head, and like in the back of one of the shoulders, and a lot of the shrapnel. And the autopsy report has a lot more detail that I really don’t understand about the neck and the head.”

Patrick Miller, James Riley, and Brandon Sloan found themselves riding in the last vehicle at the back of convoy, and they were taking the heaviest fire. Using the dashboard to protect himself, Miller popped his head up, from time to time, to make sure he was still on the road. Bullets were bouncing off the hood, the persistent sound of the attack filling the cabin of the truck.

“Just pop, pop, pop, pop,” Miller said. “And I seen one guy jump out in the road, and aim at me. And I ended up hitting him.”

The transmission on his rig, though, was shot out, and the truck ground to a halt. Sloan, killed by Iraqi fire, was left behind in the cab of the truck as Miller and Riley ran through the rain of bullets to get to the wrecked Humvee and tractor trailer, about four hundred yards distant.

When they arrived at the crashed Humvee, Riley reached into the wreckage in an effort to recover Dowdy’s M-16, hoping to get his hands on a functional weapon. Miller, however, was trying to determine if any of the five members of the 507th inside the Humvee had survived the accident. He leaned into the crumpled vehicle.

“Is anyone alive?” he screamed above the din of the battle. “Is anybody alive?”

There was no answer. Jessica Lynch’s foot was twitching, but Miller assumed it was nothing more than the reaction of nerves after death.

Riley’s M-16, meanwhile, was not working, and his survival, as well as the soldiers still alive, depended on a weapon. Unable to free Dowdy’s gun from the wreckage, Riley got M-16s from Johnson and Hernandez, who were both wounded, and tried to shoot back at the enemy.

“At this point,” Riley said, “The weapons are jamming up. They’re, uh, we’re experiencing some malfunctions. You could hear the bullets winging by your head, and impacting on the concrete around us.”

Without useful weapons, Miller ran off to try and commandeer an Iraqi truck to get them away from the ambush. From beneath the crashed Humvee, Riley, seeking protection with Johnson and Hernandez, tried to provide covering fire for Miller. The Iraqis were becoming braver, moving into the open, and stepped up the level of their assault on the stranded Americans.

“Trying to take cover and taking fire from RPGs, which are rocket-propelled-grenades,” Riley recalled in a nationally televised interview. “Some, I don’t know what they were, an improvised explosive, like a great big pipe bomb. ‘Cause you could hear it hit the asphalt and go, dig, dig, boom, as it blew up.”

Miller was unable to reach the Iraqi truck. According to the Army’s investigation of the incident, Miller found a sand berm above the road, and began to single-handedly take on the Iraqis with his faltering M-16.

“I seen a group of Iraqis setting up a mortar pit,” he said. “And as one of them tried to load the round into the tube, I shot him and he fell over and he dropped the round. They did that like about five or six more times. And never got the round loaded.”

Undoubtedly, Miller’s actions affected whether the other three soldiers remained alive. A well-placed mortar round on the wrecked Humvee and tractor-trailer was certain to kill Riley, Johnson, and Hernandez. After he had taken the mortar out of combat, Miller turned around to shoot at an Iraqi running past carrying an AK-47 automatic weapon. By the time he turned back in the direction of the mortar, he found himself surrounded by Iraqis, who then gang tackled him. (Miller was awarded the Silver Star for his heroic actions during the ambush.)

Riley, in the refuge of the wreckage with Johnson and Hernandez, also knew there was no point in further resistance.

“None of the weapons were functioning,” he explained. “I’ve got two wounded, Miller’s already been surrounded and captured, and they’ve got us totally in….pretty much encircled and pouring fire in. So the choice was taken away….that’s part of the code of conduct. You resist until you no longer have the means to resist, and at that point we didn’t have the means to resist. It was a choice of die now or die later.”

The Iraqis removed the dead and wounded Americans from the crumpled Humvee. Lori Piestewa and Jessica Lynch were still alive. They were later given medical treatment, and Lynch survived. Piestewa, however, became the first Native American woman in history to die in combat under the United States flag. In this new U.S. Army, women had earned the privilege of serving alongside men, and firing their faulty guns out windows at the enemy in combat, even if they had ended up there inadvertently. They had also earned the right to die while fighting.

When Riley, Johnson, Hernandez, Miller, Piestewa, and Lynch were all being taken prisoners of war, another 507th tractor trailer and a five ton truck had almost reached the edge of Al Nasiriyah. The Army’s report said Howard Johnson and Ruben Estrella-Soto, and Jamaal Addison and James Kiehl had “maneuvered several miles under fire.”

As the guns hammered at the side of his truck, Kiehl probably did not have time to think about a light-hearted request he had made of Captain King’s wife before he left for Iraq. According to Cynthia King, James Kiehl was concentrating on his unborn child before he deployed to the Persian Gulf.

“He came up to me one day,” she said. “And he said, ‘Mrs. King, Mrs. King, would you put in a good word for me and ask your husband to move me to rear detachment until my wife has the baby and I promise to go the next time?’ He was half joking and half serious, but we knew it wasn’t going to happen. But he had to try.”

At the intersection of Highways 8 and 7/8, where Captain Troy King had first lost his way, Addison and Kiehl’s truck had overturned. Evidence indicated it was hit by “either direct or indirect fire.” Just south of where the five ton truck was upturned, Johnson and Estrella-Soto’s rig had come to rest. Structural damage to their tractor-trailer looked like it had come from colliding with the barrel of an Iraqi tank. Kiehl, Addison, Johnson, and Estrella-Soto were all dead. The U.S. military has said it has no real details on their deaths.

As a result, Estrella-Soto’s mother, Amalia, refused to believe her son was dead.

“The Estrella-Soto family is very angry with the military,” said Laura Cruz, a reporter for the El Paso Times. “They despise it, actually, because from their perspective, they still don’t know what happened to their son. The military had told her, ‘We have your son’s body but we can’t return him right away because we are missing a piece of it.’ So, she said they told her to have a closed casket, and she signed paperwork saying, ‘I will not see my son’s body.’ So, she got the casket, and ever since then, she’s been absolutely hysterical. She never got to see him, and because of that, she thinks he’s still alive. She never got to see the body.”

At Fort Bliss in El Paso, the Army’s report of what happened to the 507th was not given much credibility by soldiers. All of them were afraid to criticize it publicly, but several dismissed its findings.

“Soldiers that are in 552nd and 507th know what happened,” one Ft. Bliss junior officer said, “and they look at the report, and go, ‘yeah, whatever.’ I think the ones that are there they see the discrepancy, and they know what happened. They just let it go. Because they have to. They work for the United States government and there are channels to take it all up in.”

“But they don’t,” he was asked. “Even though they don’t buy into the report?”

“No.”

“Is that because if you take it up through official channels, you bring attention to yourself?”

“Absolutely.”

James Kiehl’s wife, Jill, who was pregnant with the couple’s first child when he died, had to deal with her own anger caused by her husband being unable to protect himself because of all the jammed up M-16s identified in the report. She refused to accept the Army’s explanation that the soldiers of the 507th were at fault because they did not properly clean and maintain their weapons.

“They just said because of the sandstorms and everything, that’s why they were jamming, and I don’t know if they had time to clean them, or if they did clean them, because the location they were at was all sand, and it was impossible to keep them from jamming. They also had to have time to do that, if they are keeping them busy with all of this other stuff, when are they gonna find time to do that, while they are sleeping?”

In his hometown of Comfort, Texas, Kiehl was one of six young people who were serving in the war with Iraq. His high school basketball coach, Colin Toot, said the giant Kiehl was the “kind of kid who was more interested in protecting the girls in his class than he was in dating them.” His protective instinct, Kiehl’s friends said, was also a part of the undercurrent that led him to serve in the military, and guided him during the war. Kiehl, of course, will never know his son’s face, or name, and the boy will grow up staring at pictures and monuments, wondering about his father, knowing him only as an abstraction, rather than a large, comforting, physical presence. Nathaniel Ethan Kiehl was born just weeks after his father had been killed in a war.

James Kiehl had told his own father, Randy, he believed in the fight against Saddam Hussein. James had said he did not want to raise his own child in a world where people have to worry about terrorism. He believed in President George W. Bush’s explanations for the war, and, before he died, he made sure the world knew that he also believed in Christianity, and that Jesus Christ was the son of God, come to save him.

On a country road across the highway from the school where James Kiehl played basketball, his father Randy sat at a table in his home. An all-night production manager of a bakery, Kiehl had raised his son to strive for importance and contribution. Although he knew James believed in the president’s call for the war, Randy Kiehl was beginning to wonder about the countless questions suddenly being raised about the Bush administration’s politics. Raw from the loss of his only child in a war of uncertain purpose, he placed his faith in higher powers than the White House.

“God has a reason,” he said. “We may not like it. We may not agree with it. But in the bigger scheme of God’s plans, there is a reason he took James home. It’s just like his being baptized eleven days before the ambush. ‘Cause God made him ready.”

And softly, Randy Kiehl began to cry.

5 Comments for this entry

  • Omaar

    Mr. Moore

    I know this has nothing to do with the subject above, but I have to say it…

    Governor Perry knows that Congress Woman Hutchison has Momentum and that her Favorable Numbers in the State of Texas are Higher than his. This is in Spite of Perry getting Endorsed by [Sarah Palin], an Endorsement he wanted, but will soon Regret Seeking, more over getting.

    An his Recent Secessionist statement did not Bode well with [Texans Polled] 75% prefer of Texans prefer staying a part of the Union [USA].

    —————————-

    My response to the Current Governor of texas is this….

    Mr. President Of the Great Nation of Texas…

    Handle The Mexican Drug Wars & Immigration & State Budget, without Federal Funding of your State or shall I say, would be Nation of Texas.

    The would be, Nation of Texas, would be Bankrupt within [6-Years] …

    An Overthrown by Mexican Immigrants, which is currently happening anyway !!

    This Man Rick Perry, has Designs on being President of the USA…

    He’s Un-American as it gets !!

    OK Mr. would be President of the Great Nation of Texas….

    Reject all the Federal Money [17-Billion] sent by this Oppressive Government.

    You are Against “Big Government”

    You are “Against Generational Debt”

    You are “Fiscally Conservative”

  • tuper

    A very well written article. My heart still hurts for the many lives affected by this tragedy. My husband and I knew many of the people involved, as he was a part of this unit….transferred only a few months before this all took place. It’s very selfish of me, but the survivor’s guilt that I have personally felt over the years has been overwhenlimg at times. That very well could have been my husband involved in this. After all these years, I still think back to this incident, and still hurt for those involved.

    One thing I will say for then CPT King, is that he was/is a very competent person. We knew his wife and family. They were/are wonderful people. Although I have lost touch with them, it boils me up to see that some people lay all the blame on him for this sitation. Until you are in that situation yourself, how can you judge? A thanks to the author of this article, because he did not imply that in this piece.

  • Chuck Lentine

    I have a couple of points I’d like to make. Before I do, I want to let you know that I have no combat experience and this is the only document I’ve read or seen about the ambush. So I may be completely wrong but I have to say it.

    POINT #1 – If walkie talkes are in short supply you got to believe that rifles (M16s, machine guns, …) are also in short supply. That being the case, you would expect the combat troops on the front lines to have the BEST equipment. Any weapons that might not work perfectly would be moved to the maintenance area that weren’t expected to see very much or any combat. Thus another reason for all the weapon problems (they had to use combat rejected weapons).

    POINT #2 – I kind of wonder if using privatly purchased walkie talkes was a good idea. Who did they buy them from and when? Did they buy them from spies? You wonder if were bugged before they were sold to the soliders. If so the enemy got to listen in on almost everything they said. Plus they might have been able to jam the frequency when they didn’t want them communicating.

    Thanks for the information. I hope we never again send troops to war without the BEST exquipment and in qualtities that surpass the need of the troops.

  • Lance Hagood

    The official reason for the constant jamming of the M-16/AR-15 was the cartridge powder, according to a military study in 1965. In one early Vietnamese fire fight, only 19 Troops survived out of 72. The main reason for the high losses was “spent shell extraction” causing a jam. Despite having been raised by an avid Quail hunter, and “plinked” thousands of .22 rounds as a youth…I had been completely “anti-gun” since the age of 16. However, on 9-11 at lunchtime, a co-worker and I went down and each bought a match target AR-15.
    At the time I had a cabin on 10 ac. near Hamilton Pool, and had cleared a 700 yard property line. My Son and I suspended a 1 inch thick, 2 foot by 2 foot piece of iron on chains 500 yards down the cut. Beyond the target was a limestone hillside, and all together it was a perfect practice range. 500 yards is difficult for anyone, standing or prone. The iron, when hit, rang like a bell and gave immediate feedback. Despite the AR being a carefully broken in, constantly cleaned match target AR-15 that has only been fired with a pause between each shot…it jammed every 50 to 100 rounds. It didn’t matter that it was stored in a dehumidified safe, cleaned after each use, and used with the very best new ammunition each session. When I researched the jamming and then inquired, I was advised to purchase a 9MM pistol for when it does jam. A 9mm isn’t going to do our troops any good in a combat situation. I love the rifle. I’d never trust any M-16 or ask anyone to rely on them in a “real” situation.

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