As his mother describes him, Jake Obad-Mathis doesn’t look like most soldiers.
At age 20, after more than a year in the U.S. Army, he is still thin and small. He stands a head shorter than most of his comrades at Fort Bliss, Texas. He’s shy and talks with a slight stutter.
Or so he did, before the private first class disappeared on Dec. 19.
Carin Obad has been searching for him for more than two weeks.
So has the family of his friend, Pfc. Melvin Jones, who disappeared on the same day from the same base.
Now – after nearly two weeks of rejections, excuses and abrupt dial tones from police and military brass, Obad said – the Army is finally looking, too.
It is “aggressively investigating,” an Army spokesman wrote to The Washington Post on Wednesday, and “very concerned about the welfare and whereabouts of these soldiers.”
But Obad and a volunteer searcher said it took a public campaign to make the Army pay attention. Jones’s father has voiced similar frustrations – as have the families of other soldiers who went missing the United States and sometimes turned up dead.
“We shouldn’t have to wait two weeks to get someone from the Army base to at least look,” Obad said. “Don’t treat them all like criminals.”
There are stories that the parent of a missing soldier hears about – and fears.
There was Devon Lee Ward, 21, who disappeared from Fort Bliss last spring and turned up dead in a coal chute.
In the fall, a 19-year-old infantryman lay dead for three weeks beneath his wrecked car on Fort Hood, while military investigators’ false leads led his family to search in another state.
More often, though, soldiers drift back to their units after a misadventure or unapproved vacation – returning to military punishment and their family’s relief.
Obad hopes for the best. But her son has never been one to go off-grid, she said.
She and her partner adopted him as a baby from a Russian orphanage, she said. Even after the couple split up, they raised him as neighbors in a beachside Florida town.
Obad-Mathis’s mothers suggested he enlist after high school, while he sorted out his future. He got into the Army last year, even when his older, larger brother was rejected.
Military life sometimes depressed Obad-Mathis, his mother said, but he pushed through. He and Jones – a 20-year-old cook at Fort Bliss – bonded over video games and dinners in El Paso.
“We thought, he’s got a buddy,” Obad said. “He seemed okay.”
The private was even in line for a promotion, she said, before his sergeant called her on Dec. 21.
Obad-Mathis was gone. So was Jones. They were last seen on the base two days earlier.
She called her son’s phone, again and again. No answer.
She called around for any details of his disappearance, but heard only vague reports that he may have been seen with Jones at a checkpoint, shortly after the Army lost track of them.
She called the sergeant back, again and again. After nearly a week, she said, he called back.
“He said, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘Help me find my son. He went dark.'”
She asked the sergeant for Obad-Mathis’s official AWOL papers, hoping she could use them to convince El Paso police to open a missing-person report.
“I said, ‘I’ll go up the chain and get them. We’re entitled to them,'” Obad said. “He got really mad and just hung up on me.”
That night, the mother took her search public.
“Dear Commanders at Fort Bliss,” she wrote on Facebook. “My son is Jake Obad-Mathis and we will find him.”
“Please share this with every leader at Fort Bliss and EVERY MEDIA outlet.”
An Army captain sent Obad a memo confirming his AWOL status the next day, but it did no good. El Paso police had no jurisdiction over the matter, because her son lived on base.
The other missing soldier, Melvin Jones, however, had an address in the city.
His father, Duane Jones, went to the police station on Dec. 30 to ask for the same thing as Obad – an investigation into a man who had been missing for days.
In hopes of persuading police, Obad said, Jones brought with him an Army captain from Fort Bliss – an account largely confirmed by an El Paso police spokesman.
“I don’t know his rank, besides a commander,” said police Sgt. Enrique Carrillo. “I don’t know what they asked.”
Police took the father’s report and told him they’d try to look for Jones. But they wouldn’t launch a formal search.
“There’s soldiers who go AWOL across the country and at Fort Bliss all the time,” Carrillo said. “We don’t enter them as missing persons.”
Jones couldn’t be reached by The Post, but in an interview with a local TV outlet, he said police offered no more help than the Army.
They couldn’t, the father told ABC affiliate KVIA.
“We can’t do anything for you,” Jones recalled authorities telling him. “We can’t trace phones. We can’t go into his apartment. We can’t do any of that until after the paper work is processed for AWOL – 30 days after that.”
By the end of December, Jones and Obad-Mathis were both working with Maggie Haswell – a former Air Force police officer who helps families find missing soldiers.
“You get the whole runaround when you’re in the military,” Haswell told The Post. “The commander says you’ve got to file with the local police. The local police say no, the military takes over.
“I was like, ‘You guys need to get their faces out there as much as possible.’ So we called the news stations.”
Starting with Duane Jones’s interview and a newspaper story, word of the two missing soldiers went out across Texas.
Neither was an official missing person, but unofficial missing posters spread through Facebook and Twitter.
On New Year’s Eve, according to Obad and Haswell, the Army finally took notice.
“Fort Bliss called,” Obad said. “They said they saw the news interviews going around, and knew they had to get involved.”
Asked to confirm that account, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command wrote that its agents, along with other law enforcement agencies, were trying to find the missing soldiers.
Fort Bliss officials “express concern for their whereabouts and well-being,” a different Army spokesperson wrote in another statement.
Asked when the Army started looking, neither spokesperson replied.
For Obad, the investigation offers hope – however long it took to come about.
For Haswell, the mother’s ordeal is too common. Haswell and her volunteer group recently tried to help the parents of Dakota Stump, a 19-year-old Army private who disappeared during a short drive from his barracks on Fort Hood in October.
The Army started looking for Stump within days, according to his mother, Patrice Wise. But they bungled the search. As the Army Times reported, investigators at the Texas base erroneously told Wise that her son’s cellphone was pinging off towers near his hometown in Indiana.
“They told me no, ‘no worries, ma’am. This happens. Guys do this,'” Wise told The Post.
She, Haswell and other volunteers searched remote roads outside Indianapolis to no avail, she said, while the Army “did absolutely nothing.”
Three weeks after he disappeared, Stump’s crushed Mustang was spotted in the trees off a road on Fort Hood, not far from the barracks where he was last seen. His body lay beneath the car.
Wise mourned. Then, she and Haswell launched a petition to create laws that would help families search for missing soldiers – something like the Amber Alert system for lost children, dubbed Dakota’s Law.
More than 4,000 people have signed it in less than two months.
Wise said her governor, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, reached out to her after her son’s body turned up.
“He gave me his wife’s cell number,” she said. “He said call if needed.”
Wise said she did. Pence’s wife wanted to help with the petition, she said, and put her in touch with the governor’s chief of staff, who has raised the hope that laws might pass this year.
But as with Obad’s attempts to get the Army’s attention, the chain of phone calls breaks down.
Reached by The Post, a spokesperson for Pence’s office said the governor simply referred Wise to Congress.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Avi Selk