ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE -- After a 16-hour flight from Bahrain in a jetliner filled with balloons, pizza and haunting stories of shared experiences, the 21 former U.S. prisoners of war returned home yesterday to a heroes' welcome of cheers, tributes and waving flags -- and to their joyous families.
"Welcome home," said Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, who, along with Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shook hands with each of the 19 men and two women as they stepped off the plane at Andrews Air Force Base. "Every American, every man and woman who cares for freedom, owes you a very special measure of gratitude."
Leading the former captives off the plane was Air Force Col. David Eberly, who saluted at the top of the stairs as the U.S. Air Force Band played "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree" and thousands of well-wishers cheered.
"Someday finally came, and we're glad to be home," Colonel Eberly said. "God saved us; our families' love and your prayers sustained us."
As each name was announced, the other former captives, mostly pilots shot down during the five-week air war against Iraq, followed down the loading ramp, some walking stiffly, one pumping a triumphant fist into the air, two with crutches. Army Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Stamaris Jr., shot down during a rescue mission, was carried onto the runway on a stretcher draped with a U.S. flag.
He saluted from his stretcher as the band played "The Star-Spangled Banner." Air Force Capt. William F. Andrews, the downed pilot Sergeant Stamaris was trying to rescue when his own plane was shot down, hobbled over to his comrade and slapped high-fives.
L "We made it, man," Captain Andrews said. "We're at Andrews."
There were handshakes and emotion-packed hugs. Little boys in bow ties ran to fathers they hadn't seen in months; wives were swooped up and kissed by their newly returned husbands. Army Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, one of the two female captives, sat through the ceremony holding the hand of her mother, who HTC stood behind her.
Families had come from all over the country for the homecoming. Said Anse Cates of Columbus, Ohio, the grandfather of Army Maj. Rhonda L. Cornum -- whose arms, broken in a helicopter crash, were both in casts -- "I've been thanking God she's home safely."
All along the fenced-off tarmac were thousands of spectators who had camped out since the early morning on the cold, blustery Sunday armed with cups of coffee along with their flags, banners and signs of "Welcome Home Heroes" and "God Bless You."
"This is history," said Shelley Cavanaugh, a University of Maryland student. "This is something I'll be able to remember and tell my children about one day."
Dennis and Janet Doherty of Bowie brought their two young daughters for the occasion. "It's important to show these people how grateful we are for their sacrifices," said Mr. Doherty. "It's a lesson we want our daughters to learn."
"They need us," said Donald Holtzclaw of Greenbelt. "They need to know we didn't forget them."
Flight Sgt. Wynn Mabry, who accompanied the group on its journey home from the Persian Gulf, said the former prisoners were "all medically progressing very well," citing injuries of broken arms and legs. Last week, aboard the Mercy hospital ship, they were examined and fed "good-quality American food."
Yesterday's flight home, he said, included a birthday celebration for Specialist Rathbun-Nealy, who turned 21 on Saturday, some inquiries about the latest sports scores and much talk about their experiences as prisoners.
Many of them recalled an incident Feb. 23 in which they were locked in cells during an allied air raid that hit the neighboring building, the headquarters of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and shook the building they occupied. They all heard the jet engine of the allied aircraft and the "crackling sound" of the bombs, said Sergeant Mabry.
The military spokesman also said the returned POWs were grateful to a captive Kuwaiti pilot named Mohammed who spoke Arabic and thus could eavesdrop on the captors and keep his fellow prisoners informed about war developments. "He was their best source for keeping their spirits up," said Sergeant Mabry.
Mr. Cheney denounced Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's attempt to use the prisoners to "weaken America's resolve."
"His judgment could not have been more wrong," he said. "The president, and the American people, would not rest until you and the entire Kuwaiti nation were free."
"You need to know that those who waited also served," Colonel (( Eberly said, closing his remarks to Mr. Cheney and the crowd. "And, sir, if you'll excuse us now, we have some time to make up with our families."
Freed prisoners of war
These are the 21 former POWs who returned yesterday:
Capt. William F. Andrews, 32, Syracuse, N.Y.
Maj. Thomas E. Griffith, 34, Goldsboro, N.C.
Col. David W. Eberly, 43, Brazil, Ind.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey D. Fox, 39, Fall River, Mass.
Capt. Harry M. Roberts, 30, Savannah, Ga.
Capt. Richard D. Storr, 29, Spokane, Wash.
1st Lt. Robert J. Sweet, 24, Philadelphia
Maj. Jeffrey S. Tice, 35, Sellersville, Pa.
Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, 28, Cherry Hill, N.J.
Lt. Robert Wetzel, 30, Virginia Beach, Va.
Lt. Randolph Slade, 26, Virginia Beach, Va.
Maj. Rhonda L. Cornum, 36, East Aurora, N.Y.
Spc. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, Newaygo, Mich.
Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Stamaris Jr., 31, Boise, Idaho
Spc. Troy L. Dunlap, 20, Massac, Ill.
Spc. David Lockett, 23, Fort Bliss, Texas.
Lt. Col. Clifford M. Acree, 39, Seattle
Capt. Michael C. Berryman, 28, Cleveland, Okla.
Chief Warrant Officer Guy L. Hunter, Jr., 46, Moultrie, Ga.
Capt. Russell A. C. Sanborn, 27, DeLand, Fla.
Maj. Joseph J. Small III, 39, Racine, Wis.
SOURCE: Associated Press