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Relatives 'devastated' to learn of soldiers' deaths on TV

Bodies found at 'horrific' site'; remains being returned to U.S.

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Mario Vasquez, uncle of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, places flags outside his nephew's home Tuesday in Houston.

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Iraq

(CNN) -- As questions swirled around the circumstances that led to their deaths, the bodies of two U.S. soldiers who were kidnapped and killed by insurgents were being returned to the United States, military officials told CNN.

The two bodies were expected to arrive late Wednesday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, according to military officials.

Anguished family members of Pfc. Kristian Menchaca, 23, of Houston, Texas and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker, 25, of Madras, Oregon, talked about the young soldiers and how the families learned of their deaths.

Menchaca's uncle told CNN that he and his family were "devastated" to find out about his nephew's death from media reports rather than the Army.

"We didn't hear it from any soldier or anybody from the government. We heard it from the TV like everybody else," Mario Vasquez told CNN on Wednesday about how he learned that Menchaca, his sister's son, had died.

On NBC's "Today" show, Tucker's family talked of the pride they had in the young soldier and of the sacrifice.

"We don't understand the big political picture," Tucker's father, Wes, said. "We understand what's happened. Our son, as far as we're concerned, he has died for the freedom of everybody in the United States. We're very proud of our son."

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that two Yusufiya residents claimed they saw insurgents behead and dismember the soldiers after dragging their bodies behind pickup trucks.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell wouldn't confirm the Post report.

"We are confronted down there by a very brutal element of anti-Iraqi forces that have absolutely no respect for personal dignity or deceased," said Caldwell. "And the site upon which our commanders and troops arrived on was one that was very horrific and just, at this point, we're going to continue with the analysis and provide the families the full details of everything they still want to know."

An Islamist Web site reported that the new purported leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was directly involved in killing the two soldiers. Caldwell said the claim is being investigated.

"Although we cannot confirm or deny that now, because we just really don't know, by initial indications from the detainees that we've picked up and the questioning that is going on, that has not been something we have heard from them," Caldwell said. "But we can't absolutely deny it at this point. "

The two soldiers disappeared Friday after an attack on a checkpoint in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad. A third soldier, Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Massachusetts, was killed in the attack.

Tucker's father said that his son wanted to be where the action was.

"I'm sure that he might have been a little scared, but he took it on as a job, a job that needed to be done," Tucker said on NBC.

An Iraqi official initially told reporters the two bodies were discovered, leaving the U.S. military in the uncomfortable position of having to notify the soldiers' families after the news reports aired.

The bodies were mutilated, sources said, and visual identification was impossible. DNA tests are being conducted to verify the men's identities. After testing, the remains will be returned to the soldiers' families.

The bodies also had been booby-trapped, and bombs lined the road leading to them. It took troops 12 hours to clear the area and recover the bodies, military sources have said.

The military said that because of sensitive details of the soldiers' deaths, it will not be making a public statement after medical exams are conducted, although family members can learn the details if they wish.

Vasquez said Menchaca's family was told Tuesday night that DNA test results would be available in 24 hours. Menchaca's mother -- Vasquez's sister -- has said she does not want to know details about his death, Vasquez said. "She just wants her son back," he said in an interview Wednesday on CNN's "American Morning." (Complete interview)

"Even if you don't want to know, you see everything on the news," he said. "They just keep detailing how the bodies were found and all that information. Sometimes I just turn off the TV because it's too much information for us."

Vasquez said that when Menchaca was home on leave last month, the young soldier said he had become a man while in the Army.

"He told me, 'Uncle Mario, don't worry. I'm going to come back as a hero,' " Vasquez recalled, choking back tears.

"But I didn't know he was going to come back this way. Because he was a hero in my eyes."

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