Associated Press Writer
MADRAS, Ore. - The family of Army Pfc. Thomas Lowell Tucker, 25, still have the message he recently left on their answering machine, telling his mother to be proud of him.
"I'm defending my country," Tucker says on the recording. "Tell sis and my nephews hello for me, I'm OK, I'm on my way."
Now he is one of two soldiers reported missing in Iraq, possibly kidnapped by an umbrella group linked to al-Qaida.
Tucker, from Madras, and Kristian Menchaca, 23 of Houston have been missing since Friday, the Defense Department said late Sunday. Spc. David J. Babineau, 25, of Springfield, Mass., was killed in the attack on a military checkpoint south of Baghdad. All three soldiers were assigned to Fort Campbell, Ky.
Early Monday, a website posting claimed that the two had been kidnapped, but U.S. officials have not yet said whether they consider that message credible.
All over Madras Monday, yellow ribbons fluttered for Tucker, reader boards flashed prayers for his safe return, and friends said over and over that they couldn't believe the news.
Protected by sheriff's deputies from Jefferson County, his family members, including parents Wesley and Margarett, remained sequestered in their home, declining to speak with the media until they received more information about their son's whereabouts.
But on Monday they did release the text of his telephone message and a statement, saying their son had joined the military because he wanted to "do something positive," after an early career spent in construction. He loved music, and played the piano, his family said.
The family also publicly sent their sympathy to Babineau's family, and said they were, "praying for the safe return of our son, Tom, and Pvt. 1st Class Kristian Menchaca."
On Monday, family friend Tille Ocker, 52, reprogrammed an electronic reader board at the discount store where she works - instead of advertising bargains, the sign read simply, "Please pray for the Tuckers."
Her daughters went to school with Tom Tucker, she said, and she works part of the year at Madras High School with Margarett Tucker.
"He's just a good kid, and I'm a Navy mom, and I know what it's like to have a child in the military," she said. "We are trying to let the Tuckers know that we are thinking about them. We want people to see that there is something wrong in this town. They want Tommy to come home, and we want Tommy to come home alive, and not in a body bag - that's really important."
Her co-worker Andrea Stroebel, who was helping to put up yellow ribbons across town, said the war in Iraq had always seemed distant and unreal, until now.
"If it was my son over there...." she said, her voice trailing off. "I can only imagine."
Tom Tucker worked during high school at a Chevron gas station owned by Rick Allen, the former mayor of Madras. Allen said Tucker liked cars and described him as strong, street-smart and mechanically inclined.
"He's a tough kid. Hopefully he's got the inner strength to make it through this ordeal."
Allen said he couldn't believe the news that one of the soldiers was from Madras.
"When it said Thomas Tucker I was like 'Tom Tucker?' " Allen recalled. "It's just bizarre; it takes your breath away. Here's this kid who used to come and pump gas at your place and now he is clear across the world - held. And there's nothing anyone can do, except hope these people have compassion and let him go."
An Iraqi farmer told The Associated Press Sunday he saw seven armed gunmen capture the two soldiers. Another Iraqi said the Americans were offering $100,000 for information leading to the abductors, but the U.S. command denied that.
The two soldiers are officially listed as "duty status and whereabouts unknown." This category changes to "missing in action" if they are not found in 10 days, according to a statement from the Defense Department.
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)