Waiting for the Missing Soldier
Nine months later her prayers—and fears—have not abated. Of some 250,000 U.S. troops who have served in Iraq since March 2003, Maupin, now a specialist, is the only one classified as captured. His parents, two brothers and one sister have refused to give up on him, but with little new information about his disappearance they remain in an emotional limbo, caught between steady hope and profound grief. "I've wondered, 'Is this a nightmare?' " says Carolyn. "If it is, I can get over it. But it's been a nightmare for a long time."
To be precise, since the morning of April 9, when Maupin's fuel convoy came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades and small arms near Baghdad. During the onslaught, nine Americans—including Maupin and seven private contractors—vanished. Within days of the attack the bodies of four of the civilians were found in a shallow grave, and the remains of Army Sgt. Elmer Krause, 40, were also recovered. Three weeks later, Thomas Hamill, 43, another contractor, made a widely publicized escape from insurgents. But there was no trace of Maupin. (Two other contractors are still unaccounted for.) "I said, 'What the hell do you mean, Matt is missing?' " recalls his father, Keith, 54, a housing subcontractor who served as a Marine in Japan. "I couldn't understand why they couldn't find him."
A clue surfaced on April 16, when al-Jazeera, the Arabic TV station, broadcast grainy footage of Maupin nervously chewing his lower lip as he sat surrounded by six masked men holding automatic rifles. "Your heart goes to your throat," says Keith of that wrenching footage, "but it was good to see him alive."
The Maupins went without much more information until June 28, when a far more horrifying video aired on al-Jazeera showing a blindfolded G.I., seen only from the back but identified by an Arabic-speaking narrator as Matt Maupin. Al-Jazeera reported that the figure was then shot in the back of the head in front of a pit. Military investigators say the tape is "inconclusive." His parents—who examined still images they said did not resemble Matt-hold out hope. "He either walks off the plane or they carry him off," says Keith Maupin. "Until then, he's alive."
The Maupins refuse to accept any other fate for their son, a shy young man who was a standout in high school soccer and football before heading to the University of Cincinnati Clermont for a nutritional—science degree. (Carolyn has two grown children from an earlier marriage, and the Maupins also have son Micah, 19, a Marine stationed at California's Miramar air station.) Matt was a sophomore when he joined the Army reserves in the fall of 2002 to help pay tuition. "I said, 'Why would you do that?' " says Carolyn, who recalls his brief answer: "For college, Mom." When it was time to head to Iraq, he did not hesitate. "I looked at this guy and he was beaming," says Jack Cle-land, 50, a Navy veteran who worked with him at a discount warehouse. "He was eager—not worried at all."
In calls home, Matt said little about his fears, instead asking about his beloved '98 Ford Mustang and the family dog and cat. To help deal with her own anxiety, Carolyn helped launch a Yellow Ribbon Support Center, a volunteer group that sends care packages to troops. Since that terrible April day, the Maupins have thrown themselves into the project, putting Matt's photo in packages with notes asking for help finding him. "They could have avoided everyone," says friend June Bailey. "But they found a cause that let them keep Matt alive."
Keith even spent Christmas day stuffing packages. "I can see Matt everywhere," he says. "And I see hope too." His wife wrestles with darker thoughts. "I can see Matt sitting there, thinking, 'When are you coming to get me out of here?' " she says. " 'Remember, No comrade left behind. Where are you?' "
By Thomas Fields-Meyer. Barbara Sandler in Batavia and Robert Schlesinger in Washington, D.C.