TORRANCE, Calif. – About a month ago, the family of Pfc. Joseph Anzack Jr. endured the most frightening of rumors: The soldier was dead in Iraq.
After messages were posted on MySpace.com, South High School put a message on a sign that said: “In Loving Memory Joseph Anzack Class of 2005.” It wasn’t until his father spoke with him by phone that the family could put the rumor to rest.
On Wednesday, the family relived the trauma – but it was real. Anzack was identified as the dead soldier found in the Euphrates River in Iraq after being abducted with two comrades a week and a half ago, a relative said.
“They told us, ‘We’re sorry to inform you the body we found has been identified as Joe,’ ” said the soldier’s aunt, Debbie Anzack. “I’m in disbelief.”
Military officials told Anzack’s family that a commanding officer identified the body, but that DNA tests were still pending, she said.
Anzack, 20, of Torrance, was one of three soldiers who vanished after their combat team was ambushed May 12 about 20 miles outside of Baghdad. Five others, including an Iraqi, were killed in the ambush.
The three U.S. soldiers were members of 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade combat team. The 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., has spearheaded a search that has included 4,000 U.S. troops and 2,000 Iraqis. Two soldiers, not yet identified, have died in the search.
If the soldiers were taken alive, it would be the single biggest abduction of U.S. soldiers in Iraq since Pvt. Jessica Lynch and six others were captured March 23, 2003.
In the soldiers’ hometowns, the discovery of the body cast a pall after days of optimism that all the soldiers might be found alive. Still missing are Pvt. Byron Fouty, 19, of Waterford, Mich., and Spc. Alex Jimenez, 25, of Lawrence, Mass.
Word of Anzack’s death spread throughout this city of about 150,000 residents 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles.
Kyle Flynn, 20, said the two became fast friends on their high school football team, for which Anzack played nose guard and Flynn was a defensive back.
Flynn recalled him as surprisingly self-assured as a high schooler and said he knew early he wanted to join the military.
“I just remember, as a sophomore or a junior in high school, he was set on it, said, ‘I’m ready to go,’ ” Flynn said. “I know that’s what he wanted to do, that was what he was about, and I respected him more than anyone else in the world, to grow up so fast to go over there and fight for us and our freedom.”
In Massachusetts, a yellow ribbon was tied to the front door of the home of Jimenez’s father, Ramon “Andy” Jimenez. Ramon Jimenez, who speaks Spanish, said through a translator in a cell phone conversation that he has been bouyed by the support of friends and family.
“The hope is very high that God is going to give Alex back to him,” said Wendy Luzon, a family friend who translated.
He last spoke with his son three weeks ago, she said, but the conversation was brief because of a bad connection.
In Commerce Township, Mich., about 25 miles northwest of Detroit, a dozen trees that line the road to Fouty’s high school were adorned with yellow ribbons.
Fouty’s stepgrandmother, Mary Dibler of Oxford, Mich., said the family was heartened by the support but saddened by the news about Anzack.
“We’re just continuing the same as we have been, one day at a time,” Dibler said. “We continue to pray; that’s all we can do.”
At Fort Drum, soldiers were carrying out their training and other operations with a “business as usual” attitude as news of the body’s recovery quickly made it around the post, said Sgt. Kevin Stewart, 25, a six-year veteran from San Antonio.
“We’re focused on training, but I think everyone is concerned and hoping for a positive outcome,” Stewart said, while standing in a shopping center parking lot off post. “As soldiers, we can all relate, and we can all imagine what it’s like for the families.”