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Wednesday, September 17

507th weapons records lost in battle

By Laura Cruz | El Paso Times

EL PASO, Texas - U.S. Army records that could show why weapons used by members of the 507th Maintenance Company - Jessica Lynch's unit - when they were ambushed in Iraq jammed were destroyed in the attack, the Army says.

Any official information about the weapons used by Fort Bliss' 507th Maintenance Company was lost on a supply truck taken into combat, said the Army, responding to an El Paso Times request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Army told the El Paso Times that there is no way to trace the histories of the weapons used during the March 23 ambush, in which 11 soldiers were killed.

An official report on the ambush near Nasiriyah said that several weapons, including M-16s, M249 Squad Automatic Weapons and a .50-caliber machine gun, jammed or failed to operate properly during the firefight.

The disclosure that the records were lost shocked, bewildered and further angered relatives of soldiers who were killed in the early morning ambush, which is among the worst losses for the U.S. military during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nine Fort Bliss soldiers and two from the 3rd Forward Support Battalion were killed, five soldiers were wounded, and seven - including Lynch - were taken prisoner.

"Capt. Troy King (507th commander) stated that he does not have any historical data on weapons involved in the enemy contact," June Bates, Fort Bliss freedom of information officer, said in a written response to the Times' FOIA request. "He lost his motorpool truck and all documentation."

Bates said King's records were kept in the motor pool and were stored in his supply truck, which was also "involved in the enemy contact."

Jean Offutt, Fort Bliss spokeswoman, said that taking all data regarding a company's weapons into battle is standard practice. Because personnel files were lost in the ambush and no duplicates exist, the 507th is now trying to re-create the information. In addition, she said, some of the weapons the 507th used haven't been recovered.

The official 507th report, released by the Army on July 17, suggests that the weapons "malfunctions may have resulted from inadequate individual maintenance in a desert environment."

"But shortly before the soldiers deployed, all of the weapons were certified and serviceable," Offutt said. "The weapons were fired on the firing range before they deployed."

Nancili Mata, the widow of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Johnny Villareal Mata, who was killed in the ambush, was shocked to learn that no duplicate records were kept on the weapons.

"They should have copies here. It doesn't sound right," she said. "They are blaming the soldiers for not keeping their weapons clean, but my husband knew better than that. He did everything right."

Arlene Walters, mother of Sgt. Donald R. Walters, who died in the attack and would have celebrated his 34th birthday Tuesday, said her son was dedicated to his job and to details. She said she finds it hard to believe that her son's weapon wasn't kept clean.

"He kept his guns as clean as can be," she said. "He even talked to his dad about it."

Because the circumstances surrounding the death of Walters are unclear, his parents continue to ask questions about anything involving their son, including the history of his weapon.

"Nothing surprises me anymore, but what I don't understand is why would you carry that kind of information into a battlefield," Arlene Walters asked. "It seems to me that if those weapons were issued out at Fort Bliss, then the records should have stayed at Fort Bliss."

Ruben Estrella, father of 18-year-old Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, from El Paso, said he no longer believes anything the Army tells him.

"They told me that my son was shot in the head, and now they are saying that he was struck by a tank," he said. "I think the Army or the government is hiding something, but sooner or later the truth will be told."

The El Paso Times had requested the history of 31 weapons the soldiers carried during the ambush. The request sought information about weapon repairs, the weapons' ages, and the manufacturer and condition of each weapon assigned to the 507th soldiers involved in the attack.

Officials at the Department of Defense referred all questions to Fort Bliss officials.

Retired Lt. Gen. Don Lionetti, the commander who led Fort Bliss during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said he could not speculate on what Fort Bliss soldiers do or don't take into combat, but he said if the records are "in-country, I imagine that they would have to take the records with them.

"Once they leave Kuwait to go into Iraq they may not come back through Kuwait, so they have to take the information with them," Lionetti said.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who called for a congressional hearing in March to determine what happened during the attack, said he believes Fort Bliss' response is logical.

"The Army wouldn't lie, especially when a Freedom of Information Act request is made," he said.