Clutching an American flag, Gloria Johnson recounted her most wrenching moments since arriving at this sprawling Army base Thursday to pay her respects to her dead son.
First, there were the three uniformed soldiers who met her and her husband, Howard, at the airport. "I looked at them, and it just seemed like it should have been our son there," she said. Then, there was the Army's inability to provide her with an account of how her son, Howard, 21, and eight compatriots from the 507th Maintenance Company died after being ambushed in southern Iraq on March 23.
Finally, there was the roll call near the conclusion of the memorial service at Fort Bliss today.
Three times the command sergeant major boomed out her son's name -- "Pfc. Howard Johnson II!"
Three times there was no answer.
"It's very, very painful," said Johnson, of Mobile, Ala., her eyes shaded by a broad-brimmed white hat adorned with a mass of white feathers. "I was crying and crying."
The grief was widespread at Fort Bliss today, with many asking themselves how a rear-echelon air defense support unit -- mechanics, cooks, computer whizzes and logistics specialists -- had suffered the heaviest casualties in the three weeks of combat in Iraq.
The Army has released few details about the incident other than to say that the convoy in which the troops were riding evidently made a wrong turn and was ambushed. However, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat who represents West Texas, has given reporters a slightly more detailed account based on his conversations with three soldiers from the 507th who were wounded in the episode and are recuperating at home. He said the troops had fallen behind a larger convoy after stopping to repair a vehicle. As they raced to catch up, Iraqi forces ambushed them at a bridge near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
Only one other unit in the U.S. military, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, has had as many killed in action -- nine -- as the 507th. And on top of the 507th's dead, five of its soldiers are prisoners of war, and five others, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, were wounded.
The original strength of the 507 -- whose official motto is "Just fix it" -- was about 150 soldiers.
"He was issuing supplies and equipment," said Johnson's father, pastor of True Vine Missionary Baptist Church in Mobile. "I felt he would be out of the line of fire."
In addition to Johnson, the other soldiers commemorated today at Fort Bliss were Spec. Jamaal R. Addison, 22, of Roswell, Ga.; First Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, of Cleveland; Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, of El Paso; Spec. James M. Kiehl, 22, of Comfort, Tex.; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, of Amarillo, Tex.; Spec. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, of Tuba City, Ariz.; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, of Cleveland; and Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, of Kansas City, Mo.
At the front of the auditorium where today's rite was held, the Army assembled the traditional shrine to its fallen: nine bayonet-fixed rifles planted barrel down, each hung with a soldier's helmet and dog tags and anchored by a pair of combat boots. Easter lilies festooned the stage, as well as a framed photograph of each soldier.
The nine honored by the Army today were a diverse bunch, ranging from Estrella-Soto, an 18-year-old nine months in the Army, to Dowdy, two decades his senior, who entered the Army in 1984. They included three blacks, three whites, two Hispanics and a Native American, Piestewa. Their average age was 25. They left five wives, one of them pregnant, and eight children.
For the Army, today's ceremony was heavy with tradition. But for Fort Bliss, it was something new.
It is a sprawling place, more than a million acres at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, and the nation's second-largest military base in terms of personnel. But until last month, Fort Bliss had suffered no combat casualties in at least a quarter-century, and that seemed to compound the sense of shock here today.
"We ran together; we hung together," said Capt. Jeremiah Saiz, 28, who was close friends with Mata when the two served, until a year ago, in the 84th Engineering Battalion in Hawaii. "He was a consummate professional, the most professional officer I ever met, and the most knowledgeable."
But Mata's Army job, Saiz said, was not supposed to involve combat; he was a maintenance officer, responsible for making sure hundreds of pieces of equipment were ready for deployment.
"I knew the reality of it, but it didn't really sink in till this ceremony here today," he said. The mourners at the ceremony, 2,000 in all, were mostly soldiers and their families from Fort Bliss, many of them in uniform forming a sea of camouflage in a cavernous arena at the base.
Some never knew the fallen soldiers, and attended the memorial for simple reasons. "They're soldiers; so am I," said Chief Warrant Officer Kenneth Dustin.
Others were still stunned at the news, or had just learned it. Spec. Joshua DeMoray, an usher at today's service, had been deployed out of the country and did not know that his good friend Walters, a cook for the 507th, was among the casualties. He found out Thursday when he arrived for a rehearsal.
"It's still sinking in," he said.