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Published: Monday, 9/20/2004

Hostage's brother fields telephone calls, hopes for the best

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HILLSDALE, Mich. - On a perfect late summer afternoon in Hillsdale County, Frank Armstrong poked at coals in his barbecue grill and wondered what his older brother was facing in Iraq, where kidnappers have threatened to behead him this morning if their demands are not met.

"I don't know what this world's about anymore," Mr. Armstrong said.

Inside the house, his telephone rang repeatedly. It's been that way since soon after Mr. Armstrong got a call from the FBI late last week saying his brother Eugene was held hostage.

Frank hadn't known that his brother, whom he's always called Jack, was in Iraq as a construction worker. The last time he talked to him, about 18 months ago, he was working in Thailand, where he had married a local woman.

"It was a shock. It was a real shock," he said.

Jack has always been adventurous. He inherited his given name, Eugene, and his trade, construction work, from a long line of Armstrong men. But he's traveled for years. He likes to see new things, likes to help people fix things, Frank said. And he's a worker.

"That was our hobby: work," Frank said of Jack, himself, and their three siblings who spent most of their growing-up years in Hillsdale County. "We were raised: You work."

Before he left Hillsdale County about 14 years ago, Jack worked on construction jobs for Frank, for his father Olin Armstrong, and for his uncle Bud Armstrong.

"The whole Armstrong family, we're born and raised construction workers," Frank said. "It's in our blood. We're builders."

In Iraq, Jack was employed by an engineering company. He was seized from his home in Baghdad on Thursday along with another American and a British co-worker.

Internet video footage showed the hostages and a gunman who said the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Jordanian suspected al-Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would kill them unless Iraqi women prisoners were freed from Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr jails.

The deadline expires this morning, measured from the time the footage first appeared.

In Hillsdale, local residents reacted to the news with concern and sympathy. Mike Fox, a local resident, graduated from high school with Frank Armstrong.

"I heard Eugene was captured in Iraq. It was disturbing to hear about it. They are real down-to-earth people," Mr. Fox said.

Mike Maier and his wife, Cheryl, who had four nephews in Iraq at the same time, said they did not know the Armstrongs, but understood the worry of his family. The couple said the whole war and loss of life saddens them.

"It's shocking and it's sad to have anybody lost over there," Mr. Maier, 43, said. His wife said her family stayed in constant contact with her four nephews, through e-mail, letters, and by sending care packages.

"They came back," she said.

Over the weekend, Frank fielded numerous calls from people who remembered Jack, people who knew Frank, people who just wanted to wish them both well, and from many reporters.

"It's a shock to a small community," Frank said. "This town's not used to all this excitement."

The wife of the other American held hostage in Iraq called Frank. So did some local officials and Army veterans. That was nice of them, an appreciated gesture, he said.

But what he appreciated just as much happened when he walked into a restaurant yesterday morning: The regulars asked him to sit with them and didn't talk about Iraq at all.

"I'm not a talker. I'm a quiet man," Frank said.

The same goes, he said, for much of his family. And yesterday talking about Jack didn't seem like it could do much to help him half a world away, said Jack's cousin Minnta Davis at her home in Jonesville, Mich.

"There isn't anything that I can say that can stop them from killing him," she said. "If there was I would be out there yelling it from the rooftops. But there's not."

Nor did Frank see any point in sitting watch by round-the-clock news reports yesterday afternoon.

He doesn't have cable television or e-mail. And yesterday afternoon he didn't leave his home to watch the news elsewhere. He said that prayer seemed like his best option.

"I'm just wishing him luck - and those other guys too - and hoping those people let him go," Frank said.

Blade staff writer Christopher D. Kirkpatrick contributed to this report.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

jschmucker@theblade.com

or 419-724-6102.



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