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What happened to the 507th?

Fate of private raises questions about how unit was ambushed

By Ed Lavandera
CNN

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Pfc. Lori Piestewa, shown here on deployment day for her company, at Fort Bliss, Texas, on February 17.

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FORT BLISS, Texas (CNN) -- February 17, 2003, was deployment day for the 507th Maintenance Company of Fort Bliss, Texas. Soldiers heading for a potential combat area in the Persian Gulf checked their equipment and posed for family pictures.

Pfc. Lori Piestewa of Tuba City, Arizona, was among those saying goodbye. A 22-year-old Hopi from the Navajo Reservation, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and granddaughter of a World War II veteran, Piestewa took a few minutes to share some last-minute thoughts with a local television station.

"I am ready to go," she said to the camera. "I learned to work with people. It's very important to me to know that my family is going to be taken care of."

As of Monday and almost six weeks after she said goodbye to her family, Piestewa was one of eight soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company listed as missing in action.

Two members of the company are confirmed dead. And as of Monday, five other members were being held as prisoners of war.

The U.S. military blames a wrong turn as their convoy approached the southern Iraq city of Nasiriya on Sunday, March 23, just days into the war.

The battles around Nasiriya have been fierce, some of the most intense fighting yet in the war.

According to several U.S. sources, a six-truck convoy was helping re-supply and support frontline troops. The convoy was supposed to be operating in a secured area.

The trucks started crossing a bridge and were ambushed by what is described as an irregular Iraqi force, according to the Pentagon.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes sits on the House Armed Services Committee. The Democrat from El Paso, near Fort Bliss, believes the convoy was overwhelmed.

"There is no doubt in my mind that when this maintenance group, that was lightly armed with sidearms and light weapons, came up against two Iraqi tanks with heavy automatic weapons, they were clearly outgunned," Reyes said.

"Because the supply lines are over 200 miles long and there are pockets of Iraqi military all along this route, we can't afford to assume it's a secured area."

Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, is a cook in the 507th Maintenance Company. The single mother of a 2-year-old daughter is now a POW.

Her father, Claude Johnson, a retired Army sergeant who fought in the 1991 Gulf War, never imagined she would ever be close to the front lines.

"When you're coming up from behind, there's supposed to be people that set checkpoints and so on and so forth along the way. What happened?" he asked. "Did they miss a checkpoint, they make a wrong turn? Where's the breakdown?"

Most of what happened in the ensuing fight is still unknown. Marines from the 1st Expeditionary Force moved in, rescued one wounded soldier and retrieved the bodies of two others, the Pentagon said.

Iraqi television showed video footage of the bodies of at least five other soldiers, who had bullet wounds to their foreheads. Reyes said the images will eventually prove the Iraqis have committed war crimes.

"It's pretty disgusting," Reyes said. "I think the people that have seen it know exactly what an atrocity has been committed against our soldiers and the violations that have been perpetrated by the regime are going to be very evident."

The Pentagon is still investigating how and why part of the 507th Maintenance Company drove into what it calls an ambush.

Military officials aren't talking about specifics yet, especially since the lives of five POWs and eight soldiers missing in action are still on the line.


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