7 rescued POWs back on U.S. soil

Kin, friends waving flags welcome soldiers home at Fort Bliss, Texas

War In Iraq

April 20, 2003|By DALLAS MORNING NEWS

FORT BLISS, Texas - They left here as maintenance soldiers - cooks, mechanics and welders - were captured in the war in Iraq and returned yesterday as heroes.

As the C-17 transport plane, carrying seven former POWs, landed in El Paso, two soldiers stuck their heads up from a top hatch.

Pumping their fists in the air and hoisting a United States flag from atop the plane, Spc. Joseph Hudson, and Pvt. Patrick Miller, both 23, signaled their return and that of their fellow POWs.

The scene excited the crowd of nearly 2,000 who began shouting "U.S.A!" and "Bienvenidos a casa!"

Five of the seven former POWs are Fort Bliss soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company captured March 23 after their convoy was ambushed.

"I feel my knees weak," said Terry Rowland, 42, best friend of Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30. "I feel like falling to my knees and crying tears of joy. I never lost faith that I would someday see this day."

The soldiers were led onto a couple of golf carts and they took a victory lap in front of the happy crowd.

Hudson, of Alamogordo, N.M., jumped off a cart at one point and said "This is a great country. God bless America!" before hopping back on.

The POWs impending return had much of El Paso - where Fort Bliss is located - very excited.

Residents decorated streets with yellow and purple ribbons to honor "their family," as one local put it.

"These guys represent the everyday working people, the blue collars, who usually don't get much praise or notice," said Raymond Turner, 44, an industrial mechanic and veteran of Fort Hood, Texas, as he washed his truck at the Patriot plaza in Northeast El Paso, home to 60 percent of all the military families living in El Paso. "They do the grunt work."

Two of the former POWs, Apache helicopter pilots - Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, 30, Orlando, Fla.; and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young, 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga. - landed in Fort Bliss but left almost immediately for their home post of Fort Hood, where another welcoming crowd was scheduled to greet them.

The 507th Maintenance unit had not expected to see combat. Instead, they ended up taking up weapons, trying to fight their way out of the ambush.

The former POWs have said they were hit by three rounds during their face-off at An Nasiriyah. Of the 14 members of the unit, nine were killed and six survived, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., who was rescued April 1 in a daring commando raid. Lynch continues to undergo treatment for her injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The other soldiers from the 507th are Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas and Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J. Miller is from Park City, Kan.

Soon after their capture, their faces became familiar to the world as the Iraqis taped portions of their interrogations.

Several members of the Fort Bliss unit were injured during the ambush. Johnson, 30, was shot in both ankles. As they left Germany on Saturday morning, she was lifted by her comrades to greet the crowd at their departure. Also wounded were Hernandez and Hudson.

Friends and family of the returning POWs had waited for hours for the plane to arrive.

Jesus Cantu, a friend of Hernandez, traveled from South Texas to welcome home the soldiers.

"We are here representing the Rio Grande Valley," Cantu said. "We are united in faith and prayer and in admiration of our new hometown hero."

With their imminent arrival, the sense of dread that had hung over El Paso for weeks was replaced by relief. There were yellow ribbons all over the city. And there also were ribbons in Johnson's favorite color - purple.

Supporters of Johnson, a local high school graduate, tied the purple ribbons from the army post to her home, where a huge sign read: "Welcome Home Shoshana."

Myrna Salinas, 42, woke up early yesterday and, along with her three daughters, began cutting ribbons. By noon, she had tied more than two dozen and still had 30 more in her car. She doesn't know Johnson, who lives in the same neighborhood, but said the soldier's ordeal brought the Iraq war home to her family.

"These kids aren't the sons and daughters living in mansions, nor do they have ties to the White House or some rich guy," Salinas said. "These are hard working people trying to make ends meet. Their plight brought the war home to me because Shoshana's story could have been that of any of my three daughters."

Tina Bankston, 62, who lives in the same neighborhood, said she knew some of the maintenance crew.

"We've been on pins and needles for the past four weeks," she said. "One day we're up. One day we're down. This helps puts finality to the roller coaster ride."

Added Edmundo Cabrera, a TV repairman: "This city needs a few heroes, and these soldiers are the perfect role models. You had a woman, Hispanics, whites. You have it all."

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