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The remains of a U.S. soldier who'd been missing in Iraq for four years will be buried in Cincinnati this weekend. For family and friends, this brings to a sad end years of hope that Matt Maupin would be found alive.

Ann Thompson of member station WVXU in Cincinnati reports.

ANN THOMPSON: At Sam's Club near Batavia, Ohio, the photo department is printing picture after picture of Matt Maupin. The more than 300,000 wallet sized images of the Army Reservist are for anyone who wants to wear or display one. Supervisor Cathy Tam(ph) has overseen the effort since April of 2004, when Maupin went missing. She says his face is forever imprinted in her mind.

Ms. CATHY TAM (Supervisor, Sam's Club): Matt's picture's all over the world. And it's just phenomenal. People still want pictures of Matt, and I hope they keep on wanting them.

THOMPSON: Tam thinks back to the day she helped Maupin get a part-time job at Sam's. The honor student needed extra money while attending the University of Cincinnati, the same reason he joined the Army Reserves.

In April of 2004, just six weeks after he arrived in Iraq, Maupin's convoy was ambushed near Baghdad. Soon after, five masked men were shown holding him at gunpoint in this videotaped broadcast on Al Jazeera.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. MATT MAUPIN (United States Army): Keith Matthew Maupin. I am…

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

THOMPSON: Nick Ayers took the news of Maupin's capture hard. The two were weightlifting buddies at Glen Este High School before Ayers was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mr. NICK AYERS (Professional Football Player): That's just totally crazy how that one month, you know, I get picked out to play professional football, happiest time in my life, and then somebody that you care about, you find out they're held captive and stuff.

THOMPSON: Ayers remembers Matt Maupin as smart and straight forward, somebody who liked to be told what to do. Quiet, hardworking, with a sense of humor is how Staff Sergeant Mike Bailey describes his fellow soldier. The two served in the same transportation company. Bailey recalls a joke Matt and others played on a superior when they put on a chemical training suit and acted like it was the one they had been told to only open in case of an emergency.

Staff Sergeant MIKE BAILEY (United States Army): Maupin had put one of them on, and as our commander walked in, one of the guys says, oh, you're going to get in trouble for opening that up. Well, Major Smith, he looked up at him and he just had this blank look on his face, and he was about to tear into him. But then they all started busting out laughing because they had tricked him.

THOMPSON: Mike Bailey says he was heartbroken when he had to return to the States without Maupin. He later volunteered to return to Iraq, in part to learn the latest about Maupin's whereabouts. While there, he updated the family as they held out hope that Maupin would be found alive.

Maupin's parents stayed busy by running the Yellow Ribbon Support Center in a storefront located in a deserted strip mall near Cincinnati.

(Soundbite of packing tape unspooling)

THOMPSON: Every couple of months, boxes of donated items are shipped to soldiers all over the world. They contain things like toothbrushes, deodorant, cookies, and magazines. Each box also contains a picture of Maupin, and the shipments continue despite the discovery of his remains.

Volunteers separate the pictures that come two to a sheet. Some of them will be handed out to mourners. Tens of thousands of mourners are expected Sunday for the funeral, which will be held at an unlikely venue - Great American Ballpark, where the Cincinnati Reds play.

Matt's younger brother Micah is in the Marines and stationed in California. He's home for the funeral, but soon he'll likely be sent to Iraq. The Marines kept him stateside until his brother's fate as a captive was known.

For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

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