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Friday, April 11

Memorial honors 9 fallen 507th soldiers

By David Peregrino, Laura Cruz | El Paso Times

FORT BLISS, Texas - More than 1,000 people gathered at the Biggs Army Airfield deployment facility on Friday to pay tribute to the nine members of the 507th Maintenance Company killed March 23 in an ambush near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

Children, generals and combat veterans of many ranks wept together openly as the lives of the nine were eulogized by chaplains and fellow soldiers.

The most moving moment for many was when Command Sgt. Maj. Robert S. Rodgers shouted the name of each soldier three times in a final, unanswered roll call.

That was followed by a 21-gun volley, the blowing of "Taps" and the playing of "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.

The nine soldiers are Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Texas; Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland; Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of Amarillo, Texas; Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland, Ohio; Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Salem, Ore.; Spc. Jamaal R. Addison, 22, of Roswell, Ga.; and Pfc. Howard Johnson II, 21, of Mobile, Ala.

Among those attending the ceremony were Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, congressional leaders and El Paso leaders from law enforcement and politics.

The approximately 45-minute ceremony was characterized by words of comfort for the families, friends and fellow soldiers of the fallen.

"Help us recognize that death is not the end, but the beginning of a new life," said Chaplain Lt. Col. Philip J. Briganti.

Sgt. 1st Class Kristine Hadano paid a tribute to each soldier after noting that for some it was their first duty assignment.

Lt. Col. Thomas E. Drake, a Fort Bliss chaplain, acknowledged the sadness and said, "Our hearts are painful and we weep in the deepest level of our being," but he said, "We have faith in eternal life and the assurance of victory over death."

Col. Robert H. Woods Jr., 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade commander, said he believed the slain soldiers "would like us to celebrate their lives" and "the good times, both before and after they became soldiers."

As he completed his remarks, he rendered a formal salute to the nine, calling them "our soldiers and our loved ones."

At the front of the stage, nine helmets rested on the stocks of M-16 rifles bayoneted upright into blocks of wood. Behind the helmets stood framed photographs of each soldier. A Purple Heart medal hung over each picture.

The nine soldiers were part of a convoy that came under fire near Nasiriyah.

Four other soldiers were wounded and six were taken prisoner by Iraqi forces. Nine Marines were killed and eight are missing as a result of a firefight that erupted in an attempt to rescue the 507th.

One of those captured by the Iraqis, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was freed by U.S. special forces April 1.

The whereabouts of the other American POWs - five from the 507th and two helicopter pilots - is not known, and finding them has become one of the military's highest priorities. The International Red Cross has not seen the American POWs and Friday urged those holding the soldiers to treat them humanely.

The memorial was to honor the soldiers who were killed and those who are still in Iraq.

Col. Stephen Wilkins, the 76th MP Company commander, said, "This is one of our most solemn occasions. We all are a family of soldiers, regardless what branch, MOS (job) or service."

At Soldier Hall, where another 1,000 people were expected to listen to the memorial, people began gathering early.

"When you're younger, it's (death) not something my generation had to deal with," said Pvt. Brian Gatter, referring to Desert Storm, during which he was 16. "One of my neighbors knew one of ours (Piestewa) that didn't come home. Now we know what it's (war) all about."

"We think about them (Fort Bliss soldiers) all the time, not only today but every day of the year," said Alicia Barrera, a 28-year civil servant at the post who is now retired. "When I found out about the 507th (being ambushed), it was very emotional. We go to church every day to pray for all of our troops."