U.S. POWs join Jackson in short walk to freedom

After 31 days, tears of joy, calls to mom

War In Yugoslavia

May 03, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- "Mom. Hey, Mom. I'm free."

It was the moment when Army Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez broke down, when his voice cracked and tears streamed across his stony face as he spoke to his mother by telephone amid an emotional journey from captivity to freedom.

War may still be raging, but for three American soldiers, there was relief and celebration yesterday as they walked out of Yugoslavia after 31 days as prisoners of war.

Freed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as a goodwill gesture after intense prodding by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the men accompanied Jackson's delegation to Croatia, then flew by military plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and a nearby hospital at Landstuhl, where they were reported to be "upbeat."

Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles, Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich., and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales, 22, of Huntsville, Texas, have somehow come to symbolize the U.S. role in NATO's war against Yugoslavia.

Fighter pilots may be bearing most of NATO's workload. Civilians on the ground may be suffering from incidents of "collateral damage." And hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees may prove to be long-suffering victims in the crisis.

Yet for Americans, the focus has been on three soldiers captured March 31 while on patrol along the Yugoslav-Macedonian border. For weeks, America's image of these soldiers was framed by the frightening images after their capture, in which they looked like scared kids.

But yesterday, in one remarkable moment, they were transformed from kids to relieved soldiers as the Yugoslav army handed them over to a delegation of religious leaders led by Jackson.

The early morning ceremony at theYugoslav army's main press center was brief, dignified and filled with emotion.

The POWs were led into the reception room by two armed guards. They stood against a wall, hands clasped behind their backs. Stone was leaning against a painting called "Life Road," an abstract work from the rising sun until death.

The ceremony proceeded quickly. Documents were signed. Speeches were made. Then the men marched across a plush carpet, smiles appearing on their faces as applause floated through the room.

They met Jackson's gaze and then fell into his embrace.

"I say to three young men, congratulations for your honor, for your dignity," Jackson said. "Thank you very much. You mean so much to us."

The men then spoke to their families via a cellular phone as if they were part of a television talk show.

Then they faced the cameras, eyes blinking, expressing their thanks to Jackson, and to the Yugoslav government for setting them free.

"We hold no ill will toward Yugoslav people," Stone said. "Our treatment was very humane."

Gonzales said, "I hope that God be with this country and its people."

Ramirez said, "Hopefully, everyone will be free and there will always be peace."

Then, after more hugs, they were off, bounding down steps and into a bus for a ride to the Croatian border, where they walked their last yards to freedom, reciting in unison, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."

They were free, yet surrounded by a press pack that wanted to know of their feelings, their treatment in captivity and their plans. They had found out they were leaving only the night before and hadn't slept amid all the excitement.

"The guards treated us very well," Stone said. "They were very kind to us. Leaving them was kind of sad to know there is this war going on, and we're leaving and they're left behind."

He said his still-visible scars and bruises came from his capture and that afterward, "the maltreatment stopped."

Ramirez said, "We're doing good, we're healthy. As you can see, we're very happy. Mostly happy."

What was the worst moment of the captivity?

"The first week of isolation," Stone said.

When their plane arrived in Germany, it was greeted by a nine-man color guard and a 27-man honor platoon, dressed in full combat gear. The door opened, the three stepped out and a roar went up from several hundred Army personnel and families.

Later, at the military hospital at Landstuhl, Col. Mark Blanton said initial medical tests showed that they were "reasonably healthy" and had suffered "only minor injuries in their captivity from handcuffs."

"There is also no evidence they were exposed to pressure tactics or propaganda," he added.

He said further tests are planned, including a psychological examination, before the soldiers are reunited with their families today.

At Ramstein, Jackson said Milosevic had made a gesture toward a diplomatic solution.

"Diplomacy deserves reciprocity," he said. "Let's seize the opportunity."

Jackson said he hoped to meet President Clinton as early as today to give him a letter from Milosevic with proposals to end the standoff.

In Washington, Clinton expressed gratitude to Jackson and said he was pleased at the men's release. "All of America is anticipating their safe return."

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