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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

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Saturday, April 5

Families of 507th grieve for loved ones

By Charles K. Wilson | El Paso Times

EL PASO, Texas - Families of the 507th Maintenance Company soldiers killed in the March 23 ambush at Nasiriyah, Iraq, closed ranks Saturday and took time to grieve for their loved ones.

``We learned last night that our sister is home,’‘ said Wayland Piestewa of Tuba City, Ariz., the brother of Pfc. Lori Piestewa. ``We’re very glad she’s home.’‘

Piestewa, the first U.S. woman to be killed in the war, was one of seven members of the 507th whose bodies were found Tuesday during the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Lynch and Piestewa were friends and had roomed together.

The Department of Defense notified the families Friday that their status had changed from missing to killed in action.

Around El Paso and the nation, the yellow ribbons - which had reflected the hope that the seven missing members of the 507th would be found alive - became a poignant reminder that the death toll from the March 23 ambush had risen from 13 to 20. Nine are from the 507th, nine from a Marine rescue mission, and two from the Third Infantry Division.

On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said the Special Operations soldiers who rescued Lynch dug up the bodies with their hands after learning where they were buried.

Families of those who died spoke proudly of their lost soldiers.

``He was ready to accept the challenge,’‘ said Jim Kowlaski of his brother-in-law, 1st Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, whose body was among those found at the hospital. ``That’s the type of person he was. He knew going in what he was in store for and who he was and what he was about.’‘

``Our hearts are saddened and we share the pain with the other families,’‘ the family of Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata said through Javier Contreras, a cousin of Villareal Mata. ``He will be deeply missed and will never be forgotten. We are proud of him and he is our hero.’‘

Yet hope remained alive for some families.

Five soldiers from the maintenance company continue to be listed as prisoners of war, including Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso; Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, Mission, Texas; Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M.; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan.; and Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J. They have not been seen since the March 23 attack, when Arab television showed them battered and bruised during an interview that U.S. officials said violated the Geneva Convention rule against public, humiliating displays of prisoners of war.

The families of Hudson and Johnson were taking some ``family time’‘ Saturday, relatives and friends said.

``The last couple of days were very hard no matter how much faith you have,’‘ said Phyllis Hudman, Hudson’s mother-in-law, her voiced tinged with emotion.

``But we are getting rejuvenated. We pray, we believe that Joe is coming home.’‘ Of the Johnson household, friend Elsie Morgan said, ``The family’s mood is up, their hopes are high, and they continue to receive citywide and worldwide support of well-wishers.’‘

Central Command in Doha, Qatar, could not say Saturday if coalition forces had secured Nasiriyah.

``It’s safe to say as we move along that it’s getting more secure,’‘ said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens. ``But we’re facing pockets of resistance. ... I can’t say if any evidence of POWs was found on the site of the rescue.’‘

Efforts by the International Red Cross, however, to reach the POWs outside of Baghdad have ended. The Red Cross said in its daily report that the fighting in Baghdad had ended all but relief efforts in the capital and Basra.

Central Command released more details on the mission that freed Lynch. In describing the moment of rescue, Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart said, a ``soldier again said, `Jessica Lynch, we’re United States soldiers and we’re here to protect you and take you home.’ She seemed to understand that. And as he walked over and took his helmet off, she looked up to him and said, `I’m an American soldier, too.’ ’’

Renuart said a physician at the hospital prompted the rescue team to collect the remains that were returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for identification. Nine bodies found during the rescue were returned to the United States for identification. Sgt. George E. Buggs, 31, of Barnwell, S.C., of the Third Division Support Battalion was also identified as a victim of the ambush. One body remained unidentified, a Pentagon spokeswoman said.

``While we grieve at the loss of those soldiers,’‘ Renuart said, ``we are pleased that we were able to make a determination of their fate and bring that back to their families.’’