- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Brothers, wives and mothers in Virginia waited anxiously for news of their loved ones stationed in Mosul, Iraq, where a large explosion shredded their tented mess hall yesterday, leaving dead and injured in pools of blood.

Families probably will be notified today or tomorrow, tragically close to Christmas, about whether their relatives died or were injured in the horrific attack.

Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard Battalion were just sitting down for lunch with members of the Washington state-based Stryker Brigade, Iraqi national guard and U.S. civilian contractors when the blast struck.

Sgt. Christopher Suda, 30, with the 276th Engineer Battalion, Charlie Company, had just logged off the computer with his girlfriend in Virginia when the ground began shaking.

“She was talking to him at 4 a.m., (noon in Iraq), right before that happened,” said Sgt. Suda’s younger brother, Brian, speaking from his office in Fairfax.

He said he had heard that two persons from Sgt. Suda’s division had been killed, adding that although he had not heard from his brother since the attack, he was hopeful.

“Ironically, one thing he always complained about were the mortars,” Mr. Suda said of his brother, adding that the camp had been mortared often. The two keep in close touch, chatting over the computer about four times a week.

“When he came back in November, he was always saying they were always getting hit by mortar shells. Early this month, they got hit with a pretty good barrage. It was bound to happen eventually,” Mr. Suda said.

President Bush yesterday expressed “sorrow and sadness” over the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Mosul, but urged family members not to lose sight of the importance of establishing democracy in Iraq.

“I just want them to know that the mission is a vital mission for peace,” he said after visiting wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. “The idea of a democracy taking hold in what was a place of tyranny and hatred and destruction is such a hopeful moment in the history of the world.”

But Mr. Bush acknowledged that this holiday season particularly will be a time of sorrow for the families of troops killed in yesterday’s attack on a mess hall tent near Mosul.

“Any time of the year, it’s a time of sorrow and sadness when we lose a loss of life,” he said outside the hospital, where he was accompanied by first lady Laura Bush. “This time of year is particularly sorrowful for the families as we head into the Christmas season.

“We pray for them,” he added. “We send our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones who suffer today.”

Despite the tragedy, Mr. Bush made it clear that he has no intention of pulling troops out of Iraq.

“This is a very important and vital mission,” he said. “I’m confident democracy will prevail in Iraq. I know a free Iraq will lead to a more peaceful world.”

Melissa Doss of the Richmond Family Readiness Group for the 276th Engineers Headquarters and Headquarters Company said relatives were trying to cope with the latest news.

“It has definitely been a bad day. Not just for our soldiers, but our families. We have only received official notification that it was our base and dining facility,” said Mrs. Doss, whose husband, Capt. Chris Doss, works in the battalion headquarters.

“The uncertainty of it all is starting to get to the families. Right now, it is all a guessing game if we had injuries — how many and if they truly did have KIAs then who are they? Our families are staying strong at this point, and hopefully, we will find out soon what is going on,” she said.

Sgt. Zachary Tyler was deployed almost a year ago. As he said goodbye to his family on Jan. 5, his 7-year-old son, Benjamin, cried and burrowed his head into his father’s legs.

“Are they going to make a you into a slave, Daddy?” he asked in tears, as 5-year-old Elizabeth, 8-year-old Stephen and 11-year-old Zachary II stood by stoically.

His father just gently patted him on the back before family said goodbye.

The 276th Engineer Battalion/Virginia National Guard, a unit that can trace its lineage to the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteers formed in 1652, had been getting ready to come home early next year after long grueling months in Iraq.

George Washington and Patrick Henry were two of the unit’s early commanders. Henry created the unit’s motto, “Liberty or Death.”

• Bill Sammon contributed to this report from Washington.

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