RIDGEFIELD — After 14 months of waiting for the rescue of her son, a civilian who was kidnapped in Iraq, Jackie Stewart feels like a hostage too.
She and several other hostage families are about to break free of the government and try to find their sons themselves, she said. They are frustrated that the government won’t tell them where their missing men are or what is being done to free them.
“I wish there was a breakthrough that we could report,” a State Department spokesman told The Columbian on condition that he not be named in print. “There is no new information on the case. The person in Overseas Citizen Services continues to maintain weekly contact with the families for moral support, but there is no new information to report.”
The government spokesman would not say whether the government has been in touch with the kidnappers or whether any ransom was demanded.
Missing along with Stewart’s son, Joshua Munns, 25, of Redding, Calif., are contractors Paul Reuben, a former St. Louis Park, Minn., police officer; John Young of Kansas City; Jon Cote of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Bert Nussbaumer of Austria.
Munns, Reuben, Young and Cote are the only American civilian hostages known to be held in Iraq. Four American soldiers also are believed to be hostages in Iraq. They are Staff Sgt. Keith M. Maupin, Spc. Ahmed Qusai al-Taei, Spc. Alex R. Jimenez and Pvt. Byron W. Fouty. The government is reporting nothing about them either.
Munns and the other four men were abducted Nov. 16, 2006, from a fake Iraqi checkpoint in broad daylight as they escorted 37 tractor-trailers in a convoy. Some 30 or 40 armed men dressed as Iraqi police attacked the convoy as it headed toward Tallil Air Base, 12 miles southwest of Nasiriyah.
The kidnappers initially took 14 truck drivers and 19 trucks but later released nine prisoners who were Iraqi citizens, keeping only the five. Those who escaped the kidnapping said some of the Iraqi raiders were former employees of Crescent Security. They said the employees had a grudge against the company.
A former Marine, Munns served 18 months in Iraq, He was in a sniper platoon in the assault on Fallujah in 2004. When kidnapped, he was a civilian contractor in a lead vehicle running supplies, making $7,000 a month and hoping to raise money so he and his fiancee, Jackie Shaw, could buy and remodel a house in Redding.
Stewart, who lives in the countryside east of Ridgefield, said her world is closing in on her as she waits for word. It’s been hard.
In November, a year after her son was kidnapped, her favorite dog, Jessie, died of cancer. In December, her mother, Carolyn Hanson, 65, of Vancouver, had a debilitating stroke. Pressed for funds, Stewart had to move out of a house into a trailer.
“I’ve moved from a 600-square-foot house to a 60-square-foot house,” said Stewart, 45, standing outside the fifth-wheel trailer where she lives with Brodie, her chocolate Labrador-Rottweiler puppy.
She’s trying to work with other hostage families to get 90,000 leaflets distributed in Iraq seeking the whereabouts of her son.
She said the U.S. government won’t help distribute the fliers which are printed in English and Arabic and feature the photos of the five missing men. They’d like to drop them by airplane over the area where the men disappeared.
“They tell us they can’t take the fliers up, because it is restricted air space,” she said. So the fliers are sitting in a hotel room in Jordan. “The government runs missions every day, but won’t take a box of fliers and dump them out. It doesn’t seem like they are motivated to get these guys back. I’m at the end of my rope with those people.”
In a telephone interview, Munns’ father said family members of the hostages are fed up with being kept in the dark.
“Can you say ‘snafu?’ ” asked Mark Munns, 45, of Redding. “That’s pretty much it. All I can say is we believe they are still alive.
“Sometimes I think our intelligence is better than our own military,” he added.
“If things don’t work out in a decent amount of time, the press will hear about it. We’ve kind of played it the way we’ve been asked to play it, staying quiet, and it does get very frustrating at times. You hit the wall so many times and pretty soon it’s gotta crack. I wish I knew how they were treating them, and how they are faring. But they are all trained well. My son is smart and tough, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s working it the best he can.”
Government says little
Shaking her head and her eyes filling with tears, Stewart said she has no more patience.
“I can’t deal with the State Department calls anymore,” she said. “They make a weekly conference call to all the families and we get nothing but ‘We can’t tell you anything. It’s all classified. We’re working on it.’ “
She heard from a North Dakota radio station in November when Franco Picco, the managing partner of the company her son was working for, said in a phone call from his business base in Kuwait that he has been working with the FBI to find the men. They are alive and Picco told the radio station: “We do have an idea where they are.”
Stewart said she doesn’t trust Picco or his company, Crescent Security, which she believes is intent on avoiding making liability payments to the families. She doesn’t know what to believe, and she’s exhausted, she said. She knows her son is strong, but he’s now one of the longest-held hostages of the war.
Scott Schneider, the company’s former director of security who is no longer with the firm, has said he understands the families’ frustrations. But he said the men were kidnapped because they didn’t adequately respond to the attack.
Picco has not been available for comment, The Columbian said.
In its latest, unsigned statement in November, Crescent Security said:
“This has been a long, hard year for all concerned and has taken its effect on everyone, however, the company continues to work with all agencies to locate and secure the release of the five men; no stone is left unturned in this quest…”
The lack of results has forced Stewart to look for some new refuge from anger and sorrow.
“I may move back to Redding,” Stewart said. It’s Joshua’s hometown, where her sister and ex-husband Mark Munns live. It’s where she can get some support.
She said she plans to put together a benefit breakfast somewhere in Clark County to raise money to expand a search for the men. “We’re going to have to hire truck drivers to take those leaflets,” she said.
The last public indication that the men were alive came in January 2007 in a video recording showing all five speaking briefly and saying they were being treated well. Since then, State Department officials have indicated they believe the men are still alive, according to some family members.
Several Westerners have been taken hostage. While some were killed and their deaths captured on videos posted on the Internet, others were freed. Dozens of Iraqis have also been kidnapped. The motives have ranged from politics to ransom.
Four South African civilians known as the Baghdad Four also are being held in Iraq. They were kidnapped near Baghdad on Dec. 10, 2006, by people in Iraqi police uniforms. Since then, the kidnappers have not made contact with the families.
The families are speculating that the South Africans may be held with the Americans, Stewart said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “My head spins around with all of this.”
All she can do is hope that her son’s name is never added to the list of 424 American civilian contractors who have been killed in Iraq since the American invasion in March 2003.