Houston Chronicle
April 5, 2003

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."