Soldiers Comb New Mexico Desert for Missing Iraq War Veteran

About 1,000 soldiers combed rugged terrain in sweltering heat Tuesday, searching for a 19-year-old soldier last seen walking into the desert after he left a note on his bunk declaring he would not return.

"I have some things to take care of. I won't be coming back," read the note from Spc. John R. Fish, according to Col. Dick Francey, commander of the soldier's Fort Hood-based brigade.

Fish was reported missing Monday after he failed to show up at a morning roll call at this desert training range about 30 miles northwest of the main post at Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. His 41st Fires Brigade was at the range for field artillery training.

Francey said he believes Fish walked south into the desert wearing fatigues and boots, carrying a weapon similar to an M-16. It wasn't clear whether he had ammunition, and Francey said no ammunition was missing.

Fish, an ammunition specialist from Paso Robles, Calif., served in Iraq for a year, returning in November, but there was no indication that he was depressed or injured, Francey said. No one has heard from him in Fort Hood or Killeen, where he lives off the post, and his mother in California hasn't heard from him.

Francey said the next 48 hours were critical for Fish, who was believed to have 2 1/2 liters of water but would face temperatures in the high 90s in the rocky desert. He had two cell phones with him, but they weren't turned on, according to the phone company.

"I just want him back," Francey said. "I just want him safe and sound back here."

Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said officials haven't been able to confirm several reported sightings, including one of a man appearing to be a soldier with a gun several miles from the training range where Fish disappeared. Soldiers are routinely seen in the area, which includes other training ranges and White Sands Missile Range.

About 1,000 soldiers from the Fires Brigade, which numbers nearly 1,300, were involved in the search, Francey said. An aerial search was under way, and state police in Texas and New Mexico also have helped in the search, he added.

"This totally surprises me. I would never expect him to do something like this," said Pfc. Michael Justman, who described himself as Fish's best friend and said the young soldier didn't appear to be upset recently.

Earlier this year, Army Sgt. Lawrence Sprader went missing on a training exercise at Fort Hood, in Central Texas, and was found dead from exposure four days later. An Army report obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act detailed missteps by base officials in that case.