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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A sacred tenet of the Army is never leave a fallen comrade behind. But soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division may well head back to New York State in a few weeks without Specialist Alex Jimenez and Private Byron Fouty. They were captured in an al-Qaida attack on May 12.

For the platoon, there was an aching hollowness and bitterness toward local people they believe could have prevented the attack.

NPR's Tom Bowman has been traveling with the 10th Mountain Division. He has this report.

TOM BOWMAN: It's an unlikely place for unspeakable horror, this lonely stretch of asphalt lined with palm trees in the sleepy village of Qargouli. Some stray dogs bark at the sheep ambling across the road. A soldier jokes with a smiling scruffy boy. Then Army Lieutenant Patrick Swanson(ph) points to a circular stain on the road.

PATRICK SWANSON: It's kind of like it's gone out, but you see, like, right here. It's blackened in asphalt right there.

BOWMAN: That dark patch is the only evidence of the fiery attack that consumed two Humvees. Five soldiers dead, two missing. Carried off into the early morning darkness.

Soon after, the identification cards of Fouty and Jimenez were found in Samara, a city north of Baghdad. Just recently, their weapons were located in the buried cache four miles away.

MICHAEL INFANTE: I mean, I've got about 20 days left. And we'll keep looking.

BOWMAN: That's Lieutenant Colonel Michael Infante. He commands the battalion that includes the missing soldiers. He's a working-class guy from Chicago, balding and avuncular. And he hears one constant message from his soldiers as they wrap up 15 months in Iraq.

INFANTE: That they want to find them. Get them home to their families one way or another.

BOWMAN: Infante says there's no hard evidence they're alive or dead. But most of these soldiers believe their friends will never return. And that painful fact hardens them toward the villagers of Qargouli.

SEAN GAUPAUL: These people know everything that happens around here.

BOWMAN: Specialist Sean Gaupaul was Jimenez's best friend. They sang Spanish reggaeton songs, talked of becoming MPs, opening a beauty shop for their wives to run.

GAUPAUL: The sheikhs know everything that happen around here.

BOWMAN: Specialist Samuel White-Eagle Roads(ph) was among those who responded to the attack that morning, rousted from bed to see the Humvees ablaze. Soldiers engulfed in flames, a fire so hot, it was cooking off rounds of ammunition.

The villagers that morning, he says, couldn't identify the attackers.

SAMUEL WHITE EAGLE ROADS: They've came out afterwards and said, yeah, we knew it was going to happen and they didn't do anything to try and stop it. You don't ever look at them the same.

BOWMAN: Roads takes a long drag on his cigarette. Soldiers are all around him on the darkened patio of the house that serves as their patrol base. One strums a guitar, others play checker. Roads is hunched over and lost in thought. He recalls Fouty - his easy laugh, his dreams of becoming a medic. Fouty's last call home to Michigan was in April, on his 19th birthday.

WHITE EAGLE ROADS: He was scared a lot. And I can't blame him over that because whenever we encountered a situation, we didn't know exactly what to expect. So naturally, most of us were scared.

BOWMAN: Rotes admits for a time he looked at the villagers with burning hatred, feelings that have since chilled into a kind of indifference toward the people he is suppose to protect.

WHITE EAGLE ROADS: But I still have to do my job every day. I still have to treat these people with the courtesy of this is still their country, yes. I'm not - I'm just a visitor here.

BOWMAN: The battalion's chaplain is Jeff Bryan, a veteran infantryman. He remembers comforting a tearful Jimenez when his grandmother died earlier this year. They talked of God and faith. Jimenez was studying the Koran, becoming conversational in Arabic. He was just 25. Bryan sits in his sparse office in seeds(ph). He seems almost caged. His eyes dart about as talk turns to the villagers.

JEFF BRIAN: Building rapport with the locals and eating dinner with sheikhs and things and - I will not do that. I won't certainly sit down and eat with any of them because I believe they know where our guys are at.

BOWMAN: Chaplain Brian says soldiers are asking questions about the security they provide the villagers, the millions of dollars for salaries and projects.

BRIAN: They're like, why are we paying these people out here now? Why are we building their streets, their stores, their houses? Why are we giving them jobs?

BOWMAN: Col. Infante acknowledges similar feelings of rage. His first thought after the attack, God help them if they torture my men. He lashed out at the sheikhs, calling them women for not standing up to al-Qaida. Now, he tries to keep his emotions in check and make sure his soldiers are able to make distinctions.

INFANTE: Because there's a lot of bad guys out there and not everybody's bad. And soldiers have been very disciplined throughout this entire affair.

BOWMAN: That discipline includes following up on more than 300 tips. Infante says the irony is that the attack actually helped pacify the area. Thousands of American and Iraqi soldiers swept in, searched for weeks, set up more check points, helped expand the concerned citizens, a gun-toting neighborhood watch. That has allowed the 10th Mountain to expand its search.

The colonel draws his finger over a map across the Euphrates River. That's where he now believes the two soldiers were taken.

INFANTE: So we get a force in here and are able to make a permanent presence over here. Somebody over here knows what's going on, somebody.

BOWMAN: But the colonel knows his time is running out. Soon, a brigade of the 101st Airborne will take over this area and the search. He takes off his glasses. He looks weary.

INFANTE: If it's anybody's fault, it's mine. We go home without them, it's my fault. I don't need these 18 or 19-year-old soldiers thinking it's their fault. I mean, I was their boss. I mean, it's just as simple as that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

BOWMAN: Just a few miles south of Infante's headquarters is Patrol Base Inchon. Just over the barbed wire wall is the spot were Jimenez and Fouty went missing. Soldiers sit around watching a fight in a wide screen TV.

Specialist Gaupaul steps outside and plops down on a cot. He lights up a smoke. He's burly with a shaved head, thick tattooed forearms. The lost of Jimenez has shattered him.

GAUPAUL: As for myself, this is very hard. I can't sleep. The time is getting closer for us to go home, it's harder and harder for me. You know, I have dreams and stuff. I'm having really a hard time. Just him and wanting - I miss my friend. I really do. He was like my brother. He really was.

BOWMAN: Gaupaul gets up and heads into his room lined with bunk beds and gear. He flips open a laptop.

GAUPAUL: This is a video I made for his - of Jimenez for his mom. That's him drinking a beer at my house.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO PLAYING)

GAUPAUL: That's us in Kuwait in a range. This is back and that position 149. We were just getting a little time off relaxing.

BOWMAN: The pictures fade out and words appear on the screen. It's never going to be the same without you. Rest in peace.

Tom Bowman, NRP News.

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