Rescued POWs greet public at military hospital

The seven are expected to return to U.S. soil today

War In Iraq

April 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LANDSTUHL, Germany - The six men and one woman freed from captivity in Iraq last Sunday appeared briefly in public yesterday at a military hospital in Germany, where they are being debriefed and three are recovering from gunshot wounds.

They emerged tentatively into a harsh noonday sun, wearing identical gray-and-black jogging suits. Two of them helped Spc. Shoshana Johnson stand up from a wheelchair to join her fellow soldiers in waving to a forest of television cameras.

"We're receiving outstanding medical care," said Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, who spent 20 days as a prisoner of war north of Baghdad after his Apache helicopter was shot down in central Iraq. "We're looking forward to coming home as soon as we possibly can."

Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., declined to discuss his feelings for his captors, saying, "When I get back to the States, I'll talk about it."

Officials here said the seven would fly to the United States today, probably to their home bases. A team of military psychologists and intelligence officers will accompany them.

Since arriving here on Wednesday, the former prisoners have been isolated in a guarded ward. They do not mix with other wounded soldiers or hospital staff.

"It's an opportunity to allow them to decompress," said Col. David A. Rubinstein, the hospital commander. "They were surrounded by soldiers on the battlefield after they were rescued, and when they get back to the States, there's going to be an extraordinary media interest."

The soldiers - two Apache pilots and five members of the Army's 507th Maintenance Co. - were freed on April 13 by Marines marching through a small town south of Tikrit.

Though jubilant and generally healthy, they bore the scars of the firefight with Iraqi troops that preceded their capture. Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas, was shot in both ankles.

Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas, was hit near his elbow, while Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M., had three bullet wounds, two in the ribs and one in the buttock, according to reporters who interviewed them in Iraq.

The soldiers described being kicked and beaten after their capture. They were stripped of their uniforms and slept on concrete floors. An Iraqi doctor performed surgery on Johnson for her gunshot wounds.

"Specialist Johnson has the most significant injuries," Rubinstein said. But he said that she was recovering well, and that the prognosis for all three injured soldiers was excellent.

The former prisoners have had to rely on one another for company. The military encourages this isolation because it believes that such bonding is an important form of therapy.

"There is something to the fellowship of the foxhole," Rubinstein said.

There are hints, however, that the soldiers are yearning for a return to society. Williams and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, 26, asked yesterday to be allowed to use a gym.

Williams seemed most concerned about the soldiers left behind. "I would just like to remind everyone to say a special prayer for all those who are still fighting on the American fence, OK?" he said.

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