Soldier's hometown grieves, remembers after receiving news
By JOHN W. GONZALEZ
Copyright 2003 Houston ChronicleSan Antonio Bureau
COMFORT -- This town lived up to its name Saturday as it wrapped itself
around the grieving family
of Army Spc. James Kiehl, one of eight soldiers slain in an Iraqi ambush March 23.
Twelve days of anguished uncertainty since Kiehl was reported missing in
action ended about 6 p.m.
Friday with a knock on the door of Randy and Jane Kiehl's home on the outskirts of town. An Army
chaplain and other officials were there to inform them that their worst fear was realized.
Kiehl's body, which was found last week in a shallow grave near the hospital
where prisoner of war
Spc. Jessica Lynch was rescued, had been positively identified by military morticians at Dover Air
Force Base, Del.
Unequipped with shovels, Lynch's rescuers used their hands to unearth Kiehl's
remains and those of
seven other soldiers identified Friday -- all but one from Kiehl's devastated unit, the 507th Maintenance
Co. based at Fort Bliss near El Paso. Five others from the company remain listed as POWs.
Two other Texans were among those killed in the ambush -- Chief Warrant
Officer Johnny Villareal
Mata, 35, of Pecos, and Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso.
Though not unexpected, the "killed in action" notification still was stunning
for the Kiehls, who spent
Saturday at home, privately receiving family and friends. They also talked to their son's wife, Jill Kiehl
of Des Moines, Iowa, who is about to deliver their first child. As the soldier's next of kin, she is in
charge of funeral arrangements, which were pending late Saturday.
With the measure of closure that came with learning their son was no longer
missing, there was also
new information emerging about the circumstances of the fatal attack on Kiehl's unit. Survivors have
contradicted initial reports that said the convoy took a wrong turn to land in trouble. Instead, the
convoy fell behind other vehicles because of mechanical problems and was scurrying to catch up when
attacked, the witnesses said.
"That makes a whole lot more sense to me than just `made a wrong turn,' " Randy Kiehl said.
On Friday, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, provided the updated version
of the ambush after
visiting two wounded soldiers from the 507th who are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical
Center. Reyes said the troops waged an hourlong firefight with Iraqis before capitulating. Others taken
prisoner had become separated from the main group as they tried to secure a crucial bridge, Reyes
Randy Kiehl said that account "makes us even more proud of our son."
Despite his loss, the distraught dad said he continues to back the war effort wholeheartedly.
"We've supported it fully and that support has not wavered -- not one bit," Kiehl said.
"James and I talked the Sunday before he was to deploy. He said, `Dad,
I've got a job to do, and I'm
going to go and do it. I'm not going to raise my son in fear of terrorism. And this is the first step of
eliminating it,' " Kiehl recalled.
"You couldn't ask for a better son," he said.
His Hill Country hometown, population 1,500, continued its outpouring of
concern. Yellow ribbons are
ubiquitous around town, and in the past few days, an impromptu roadside memorial has been growing
on U.S. 87, near the Kiehl home and Comfort High School, where James Kiehl graduated in 2000. A
band shirt, softball gear, watermelon, music tapes and other items have accumulated.
"That's special. That means a lot to Jane and I," Kiehl said.
His daughter-in-law, surrounded by her own family in Iowa, is "holding
up. She's staying strong. She's
OK," Kiehl said. The young widow is due to give birth to Nathaniel Ethan Kiehl by the end of April.
A difficult funeral lies ahead, Kiehl acknowledged, but he's not sure when
or where it will be. While
waiting for those details, Kiehl said, "in memory of James, we want to keep trudging. We want
everybody to come home. And the unfortunate ones that were killed in action or missing in action, we
want them all accounted for."