Families of Soldiers Killed in Karbala Cope with Loss

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The families of four U.S. soldiers killed earlier this month in Iraq are still coming to terms with how the men died. At first it was thought they were ambushed; in fact, they were kidnapped from a Karbala compound and executed.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

The U.S. military announced this weekend that seven soldiers have died in Iraq over the past few days. The casualties follow the deaths last weekend of 25 soldiers and Marines. Four of those service members were killed during an attack in the city of Karbala, but Army officials have sharply revised their accounts of how the soldiers died. And as North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, the confusion is making this time doubly painful for family members.

BRIAN MANN: When the U.S. Army informed the family of First Lieutenant Jacob Fritz about their son's death, the account went like this.

Ms. KAREN METZGER (Fritz Family Spokesman): Basically they were told that he was one of a military security guard at a meeting that was taking place on the base in Karbala, and he was shot.

MANN: That's family spokeswoman Karen Metzger. She says family members in Verdon, Nebraska have been in regular contact with the Army, but they only learned details of their 25-year-old son's kidnapping and murder through the media.

Ms. METZGER: (Unintelligible) news today from other associated presses and different news like that.

MANN: On Friday the Army confirmed press reports that the four soldiers were abducted by gunmen posing as an American security team. The Iraqi guards at the compound were apparently fooled by the ruse and waved the insurgents through a security checkpoints. The soldiers were kidnapped, following a short battle that left another American soldier dead and three injured. They were found a short time later.

Yesterday morning, John Thackett(ph) was doing chores outside his mom's house in Homer, New York, a small town just south of Syracuse. Thackett is himself a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. His younger brother, Army Private First Class Shawn Falter, aged 25, was one of the soldiers kidnapped and murdered. Thackett says he's sick of media's questions about how Shawn died.

Mr. JOHN THACKETT (U.S. Marine Corps): I think the more detail, we really don't need it. We're satisfied with the information we got.

MANN: Another of Shawn Falter's brothers, Air Force Master Sergeant Andrew Lucas(ph), goes further, praising the Army for their help and outreach.

Sergeant ANDREW LUCAS (U.S. Air Force): So far the Army has done an outstanding job with their assistance to my family at this time, and that's all I'm going to comment about that.

MANN: Before Private Falter's death, four members of this family were on active duty. Now, Thackett says, the surviving brothers are home on leave, focused on comforting their parents and honoring Shawn's memory.

Mr. THACKETT: All the brothers and sisters and relatives are in town, and we're here to make sure we do it right.

MANN: Village Mayor Mike McDermott is working a few blocks away, at the American Legion Hall. A new wooden memorial with Shawn Falter's picture sits out front. Legion volunteers are hanging fresh American flags along Main Street. McDermott is a Vietnam vet and acknowledges that support for this war is dwindling. But today, he says, isn't the day for politics or questions.

Mayor MIKE McDERMOTT: People have their own thoughts on it, but at a time like this, it really doesn't matter. They're just pulling together for the family. You know, they didn't want any controversy. It's hard enough for their family as it is, so - you know, support the troops, not only just Shawn, but all the other soldiers that are fighting this war.

MANN: The assault has raised new questions about the sophistication of the insurgency. An Army spokesman described the attack as precise and well-rehearsed. The Karbala attack also comes at a time when critics in Congress are questioning whether the Iraqi army is capable of supporting U.S. efforts in the country.

The two other soldiers abducted and murdered were Jonathan Chisholm, age 22 from Gonzalez, Louisiana; and Jonathan Milliken, age 20 from Trafford, Alabama. All the men were part of an infantry division from Fort Richardson, Alaska.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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