Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Missing soldier's voice calms family


Independence native rescued after week in desert

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDEPENDENCE - It was only a two-minute conversation, but it confirmed with a familiar voice that a local soldier who was lost in the desert for seven days had been found.

Hovering over a speakerphone in their Independence kitchen, the Klein family shouted, `I love you,' all the way to Iraq.

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Billie Klein of Independence talks on a speakerphone with her son, Army Spc. Jeff Klein, 20. He had been lost for a week in Iraq. At right is his sister Karla, 17.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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They hadn't known that Spc. Jeff Klein, a 2000 graduate of Dixie Heights High School, was missing until Marines found him alive in the southern Iraqi desert, where he and a fellow soldier had been stranded for a week.

The phone reception wasn't clear Monday, but the message sure was.

"I'm doing good. Everything's good," the soldier said. "I love you guys."

Jumping up and down, his 17-year-old sister, Karla, shouted: "You're a hero. You're the Independence hero right now."

A pause. Then Jeff's voice came back:

"Ah, I wouldn't go that far."

An exchange of more I love you's, jokes about making the pages of The New York Times and some tears came.

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Klein is overcome with emotion.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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One more pause.

"I love you, son," Billie Klein, the soldier's mom, said. "I love you so much."

Klein, 20, and Sgt. Matthew Koppi, 22, of Asheville, N.C. - both mechanics with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division - were rescued Friday when Marines found the pair in a trench they dug in the sand.

Family members in Independence said they learned from media reports and Jeff's wife that the two were stranded after being sent to tow an officer's Humvee that had broken down as the division was traveling north toward Baghdad. When the clutch failed on their own truck, they were ordered to stay put and told that someone would soon pick them up.

Days passed and no one came. The two dug trenches to defend their position and took turns keeping watch. They gave their MREs to hungry Iraqi civilians and wrote "S.O.S." in the sand.

The soldiers watched and hid as suspicious white vehicles that might have been part of Saddam Hussein's loyalist Fedayeen drove by.

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A joyful mom after the call.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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"That's the first time I heard his voice since he left Jan. 21," Billie Klein said, her voice cracking. "Thank you, God. I said everything would be OK if I could just talk to him. Who says God doesn't perform miracles?

"They're saying by chance the Marines found him. I say by the grace of God."

Jeff's wife, DeAnna, 18, was in Fort Stewart, Ga., on Friday when she got the call from her husband. A reporter lent him a cell phone.

DeAnna, who serves with the 703rd Division, 92nd Chemical Company was so upset it took a few minutes to calm down before the two could really talk.

But on Monday, she was ready to surprise both mother and son. When Jeff called, DeAnna, who is on desk duty because she is five months pregnant, made a three-way connection - from Iraq to Fort Stewart and finally, to Independence.

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Jeff Klein with his wife Deanna in January, when he shipped out for Iraq.
(Family photo)
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"I did it as a surprise for them both," she said by phone from Georgia.

"I knew Billie hadn't talked to him in such a long time. We talked for maybe a minute and I told him to hold on."

Family members couldn't help but speculate about the Kleins' experience.

"My heart ached when I heard," Billie Klein said, crying. "As a mom, I thought about him being cold at night. I wanted to put a blanket over him. I don't care that he is a man in the Army. When you're a mom you still think of him the same way when he was 5.

"I heard him saying, `Mom, I'm scared.' If I could just put my arms around him I'd say, `Everything is going to be OK.'"

But Monday afternoon was about celebrating. It was not for worrying about what might have been, but thinking about what's to come.

Chris Creech, 31, of Hebron was the recruiter who sent Jeff Klein into the military.

Creech served in Desert Storm in the early 1990s. A friend of the family, he was in the kitchen when the call came in.

"We made a deal," he said. "I went over there the first time and he went over the second time. So, when he gets back, I owe him a beer."

Jeff's mom added: "He will be 21 April 5. And I am ready for him to come home."

E-mail kgoetz@enquirer.com




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