It's been a long, scarring year for the soldiers of the Army Reserve's 724th Transportation Company, but they are finally coming home from Iraq. Their families are busy making plans for a welcome-home bash at the end of the month. They've booked the Blossom banquet room at the Cranberry Lodge near the unit's Wisconsin base. Buffalo wings and pizza will be the featured fare, at the soldiers' request. It will be the last chance for the reservists to celebrate their safe return together before they disperse to pick up their civilian lives.
One member of the 160-strong company, however, will be conspicuously absent. He is Keith (Matt) Maupin, the only American soldier who is unaccounted for in Iraq. Ten months ago, insurgents ambushed a convoy guarded by the 724th and took Private First Class Maupin, then 20, captive. There have been conflicting reports on his fate. He was seen alive on one videotape, reported killed on another. Without proof of his death, the Army presumes he is still alive. His family fervently prays that is so. The months have ticked by, and Maupin has been promoted to the rank of specialist and turned 21. While most of the country may have forgotten about him since news of his capture made headlines and his bewildered face under a floppy hat was flashed across America's television screens, his hometown has not.
Because no one in Batavia, a sleepy village of 1,600 on the eastern fringe of Cincinnati, Ohio, knows where Matt Maupin is, he is everywhere. SPC MATT MAUPIN--OUR PRAYERS ARE WITH YOU AND YOURS, the big electric sign at Jeff Wyler Auto Mall flashes once a minute. At the top of every hour, the local oldies radio station, WGRR, airs a booming jingle: "Joining you in all our prayers for Matt Maupin." Incongruous messages dot the strip malls along busy Route 32, which bisects Clermont County. PRAY FOR MATT MAUPIN AND FAMILY LARGE CHEESE $5.99, says the sign outside Snappy Tomato Pizza.
As you get closer to the Maupin home, several miles west of Batavia, his last name vanishes. OUR PRAYERS ARE WITH MATT, says the sign at Uncle Bob's Self Storage at the end of Schoolhouse Road, where he grew up. THINKING OF MATT, says the one at Willowville Elementary School, which he attended. Glen Este High School, from which Maupin graduated in 2001, has become a shrine of hope. Hundreds of red, white and blue plastic cups are stuck into chain-link fencing, spelling out his name and framing his picture. The winter weather has taken a toll on the yellow ribbons in town, but residents say replacements will come with the spring, along with nature's yellow displays of daffodils and forsythia. "People have a tendency to forget," concedes Keith Maupin, Matt's father. "We're not going to let that happen."
The Maupins are living the Iraq war in a way unlike any other U.S. family, and their town is feeling it unlike any other place. More than 10,000 U.S. troops have been wounded since the invasion of Iraq nearly two years ago. Close to 1,500 have died. But Matt Maupin falls into a category of one: he is the sole U.S. soldier fighting in Iraq who is unaccounted for. "Every day it's, Where is my son? Is he alive? Is he dead? What's happening?" his mother Carolyn says in a voice skating along the edge of torment. "That fear of the unknown is one of the worst things you can ever go through."