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Thursday, April 10

Memorial planned for 507th's soldiers

By Laura Cruz | El Paso Times

EL PASO, Texas - Families, friends, soldiers and thousands of community members will pay tribute Friday to the lives of nine Fort Bliss soldiers killed following a March 23 ambush in Iraq.

About 1,000 people will be able to attend the ceremony at the Biggs Army Airfield's deployment facility, organizers said, and an estimated overflow of another 1,000 people will able to view the televised memorial at Soldier Hall in Building 2 on Fort Bliss.

``We hope this gives the families a sense of pride in their loved one, and we hope they walk away knowing that we shared in the pride of their loved one as well as ... their loss,'' said retired Maj. Michael Lister, chief of the installation operation center.

Nine pairs of boots, nine Kevlar helmets, nine M-16s, nine sets of dog tags and the photographs of the nine soldiers rested before an American flag that covered a wall during Thursday rehearsals for the ceremony.

``There were tears shed through (Thursday) morning's rehearsals,'' Lister said. ``You just can't get through certain parts of the ceremony without getting emotional. You know even though you might not have known the soldier, they are still a fellow soldier and losing a soldier gets emotional.''

Lister said the ceremony will include a tribute to the fallen soldiers, prayers, music, remarks from the commander of the 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade and roll call.

``In a normal unit, for accountability purposes, roll call is when a list with the names of the soldiers is read and the soldier responds by saying `present,' '' Lister said. ``We will read the names of three soldiers who will be present and then each of the names of the nine soldiers will be read three times, except there will be no report from that soldier indicating that the soldier is no longer present and therefore a fallen comrade.''

The nine soldiers are Spc. James M. Kiel, 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; Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland; Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo., Spc. Jamaal R. Addison, 22 of Roswell, Ga., and Pfc. Howard Johnson II, 21, of Mobile, Ala.

In a separate ceremony, the El Paso City Council will honor the nine soldiers, the 507th Maintenance Company and the rest of the Fort Bliss soldiers in a unity event at 7 p.m. at Cohen Stadium.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Tom Drake, who attended the rehearsals, said he was strongly affected by the speeches soldiers practiced on Thursday.

``The mood was somber even though we were rehearsing,'' Drake said. ``We know (Friday) will be hard on those conducting the ceremony. You muster all your professionalism, but you cry when you have to cry.''

Drake said for the families of the soldier, the ceremony is not an end to the pain they feel, but something that ``needs to be done.''

``Whenever a family has lost a loved one, to them that is a mass casualty,'' he said. ``Their lives are changed forever and it's not something you get used to, it is something you learn to live with.''

Drake said the ceremony is important for the public because ``El Paso has adopted the soldiers as its own children and they go through the same feelings of loss, hurt and remorse.''

For retired Lt. Col. Ed Bunn, a Cloudcroft resident, taking the time to drive down to Fort Bliss from New Mexico is just a small effort to show that he and the residents of Cloudcroft, who adopted the 507th during the 1991 gulf war and during Operation Iraqi Freedom, are proud of the company.

``We look at them as our people, they belong to us,'' Bunn said. ``We take it very personal. It's very personal to me because I served two tours in Vietnam, and I was in the Army for 21 years, so I can understand the sacrifices they made.''

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said he and his wife made attending the ceremony a priority because they took the news personally.

``When the story of the 507th is told, all of us are going to be proud of how they responded to the ambush,'' Reyes said. ``We must certainly not forget the families of the five POWs who are still being looked for.''

The five Fort Bliss soldiers taken prisoners of war during the ambush of the 507th are Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, Alton, Texas; Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M.; Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J.; Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, El Paso; and Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan.

Vietnam veteran Jack Smith said he wants to show the families that many people support them and are proud of their sacrifices and their loved ones.

``You sit and your eyes are glued to the TV seeing real time action, and I think about the mothers, fathers, wives and husbands,'' he said. ``You feel useless. What can you do? This is just a way of saying we are proud of you and really sorry that you are not here.''