Their long weeks of waiting over, their prayers finally answered, families of seven captured U.S. soldiers laughed and cried with unbridled joy Sunday as they celebrated word that their loved ones had been released in Iraq.
“Greatest day of my life,” Ronald Young Sr. beamed as he and his wife, Kaye, watched a choppy CNN video of their son, helicopter pilot Ronald Jr., running to an aircraft that whisked the rescued prisoners of war out of danger after 22 days in captivity.
“I’m just so happy that I could kiss the world!” added the elder Young. “When I saw him, it was like somebody had won the World Series. Everybody was jumping around and hollering.”
Kaye Young laughed with glee at images of her grinning, 26-year-old son as neighbors delivered food and flowers to their home in Lithia Springs, Ga. An American flag hung on the front door and yellow ribbons were tied to trees outside.
“Ron has this smile that was ear-to-ear, we could just see it,” said his mother. “He looks thin. But he looks good. I always thought he would come home.”
At other homes of POW families, friends and relatives also crowded in, shook hands and hugged one another. Outside, others waved American flags and blasted car horns.
“I feel that my heart wants to burst out of my chest,” Maria De La Cruz Hernandez said in Spanish after learning her son, Edgar, was free. “I’m going to have a heart attack here with so much happiness.”
Drivers who passed the family bungalow in southern Texas responded to a sign that said “Honk for Edgar” by beeping their horns or stopping to join the party.
In Fort Hood, Texas, the family of the second rescued helicopter pilot, 30-year-old David S. Williams, was smiling as well.
“I’ve always remained positive,” said his father, David Williams Sr., who was with his son’s wife, Michelle, and their two children. “When you believe in God as I do and my son does, you know he will come back home safely.”
The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that the seven soldiers – six men and one woman – were all those formally listed as POWS, including five from the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company and the two downed Apache helicopter pilots.
The pilots, both chief warrant officers, were forced down during heavy fighting in Iraq.
The captured members of the 507th were specialist Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas; Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M.; Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of Park City, Kan., and Sgt. James Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, N.J.
They were attacked after making a wrong turn March 23 near Nasiriyah, a major crossing point on the Euphrates River northwest of Basra.
Jessica Lynch, rescued from an Iraqi hospital earlier this month, had also been with the convoy. Her family issued a statement saying the release answered the prayers of millions of people around the world.
Iraqi troops released the POWs to Marines near Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
The seven were taken to a military airport in Kuwait, where all were released after medical examinations. Marines who flew them to safety said two had gunshot wounds: Johnson, in an ankle, Hernandez, in an elbow.
President Bush was notified of the release around 7 a.m. EDT.
“It’s just a good way to start off a morning, to be notified that seven of our Americans are going to be home soon and in the arms of their loved ones,” he said.
Hudson’s mother, Anecita, received first word about her son early yesterday morning from her sister in Okinawa. “I am so happy I didn’t even put my hair up, but I don’t care,” Anecita Hudson said.
For three weeks, the POW families waited for word of their loved ones. The gnawing sense of anguish deepened when the soldiers, several of them looking frightened, appeared on Iraqi television. That week, stores in Riley’s New Jersey hometown, where he had enlisted straight from high school, sold out of yellow ribbons.
“It’s just an emotional rollercoaster and we’re just happy he’s safe,” said Riley’s mother, Jane, who had just returned from church services when an Army major arrived with the news.
Later yesterday, she spoke by telephone with her son, telling him, “We’re happy you’re free. … You know we miss you and love you.”
During the call, aired on television news outlets, Riley was told his 29-year-old sister, Mary, had died of a rare neurological disorder after spending two months in a coma.
Col. Ben Hobson, chief of staff at Fort Bliss, home of the 507th, said while yesterday’s news was wonderful, “it doesn’t help those who weren’t as fortunate.”
And other families continued to live with uncertainty.
“We’re all well, but all waiting,” said Juanita Anguiano, whose 24-year-old son, Edward, an Army sergeant, is among several U.S. troops still missing. “We certainly hope they find him.”
In Texas, the family of Johnson, the only women among the seven released a statement. “We thank God for watching over them. We are grateful for all the worldwide prayers,” Johnson’s father, Claude Johnson said.
Jessa Miller talked with her husband yesterday, according to pastor Ron Pracht, a Wichita, Kan, pastor who has been acting as family spokesman.
“He said he was treated remarkably well,” Pracht said.
“She was real excited she got to talk to him, and she is anxious to get him home,” the pastor added. “He was ready to come home.”