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Former Prisoners of War Arrive in Texas

Former Prisoners of War Arrive in Texas

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FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) - After three terrifying weeks of captivity in Iraq, seven rescued POWs returned home Saturday to a nearly overwhelming welcome of joyous tears, hugs from family and a sea of fluttering American flags.

As the C-17 transport plane rolled along the windswept tarmac at Fort Bliss, two of the former POWs poked their heads through a hatch on top of the aircraft, holding an American flag and waving to the crowd. Thousands of well-wishers burst into a raucous cheer.

Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, of Alamogordo, N.M. bounded off the plane, hugged his wife Natalie and scooped up his 5-year-old daughter, Cameron, on the tarmac. The other returning soldiers greeted loved ones as well.

"This makes you almost as nervous as being shot at," said Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, speaking later at a ceremony at Fort Hood, Texas, where he and fellow helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young Jr. flew after arriving with all the other POWs at Fort Bliss.

"I say a special prayer each night for our fallen comrades, for the soldiers that didn't make it home, and the ones that are still over there. I want everyone to remember them in their prayers," he said.

About 1,500 friends, family and comrades of the two soldiers rose to their feet and let out a whooping cheer at Fort Hood. Cathy Franks, the wife of Gen. Tommy Franks, was in the crowd among the well-wishers.

"It was just devastating what we went through and all of a sudden it's like the sun coming up after a stormy night," said Williams' uncle Russell Tucker.

Earlier at Fort Bliss, Spc. Shoshana Johnson, who gripped a flag in each hand, hopped on one leg as she was helped onto a golf cart. She was shot in both ankles during an ambush.

The cart then took a victory lap in front of the overjoyed crowd, which occasionally broke into chants of "USA! USA!" Hudson, one the three POWs who had been wounded, jumped off the cart at one point and said "This is a great country. God bless America!"

"They are in great shape and great spirits," said Col. Glenn Mitchell, commander at the medical center.

After a private reception and dinner of submarine sandwiches, cookies and pink lemonade, the five Fort Bliss soldiers were to spend the night at the post to undergo evaluation by doctors from nearby William Beaumont Army Medical Center. Williams and Young then flew off to Fort Hood.

At the ceremony at their home base, the two pilots struggled to hold back tears. Williams sat next to his wife Michelle, who is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the same 1st Cavalry Division as her husband.

In opening the ceremony, Maj. Gen Joseph Peterson paid tribute not only to the American troops serving in Iraq but also to the family members back home awaiting their return.

"This community loves its soldiers and lives to support them," he said. Then turning to Michelle Williams: "Dave is very lucky to have you as a wife and the first team is fortunate to have you among our ranks."

Young also expressed his appreciation.

"We really do appreciate the support. I thank God that I was allowed to live my life and share the rest of my life with my family," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that in the 1st Cav division any of these soldiers would have done the exact same thing I did when I as there."

On Sunday, President Bush planned to helicopter to Fort Hood for Easter services with soldiers and their families. During the visit he also will meet privately with the two former POWs, White House officials said.

A nine-member team of debriefing specialists and a psychologist accompanied the seven on their trans-Atlantic flight from Germany, which was refueled in flight to avoid requiring an additional stop, U.S. Air Force officials said.

Five of the former POWs are stationed with the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company.

The seven were rescued April 13 after three weeks of captivity when Iraqi captors abandoned their posts ahead of advancing American troops.

The Fort Bliss soldiers were captured and nine comrades were killed in an attack near Nasiriyah on March 23. Another member of the 507th, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was rescued separately in a daring commando raid April 1 and continues to recuperate in Washington, D.C.

The Fort Bliss soldiers were Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M.; Johnson, 30, El Paso; Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, Mission, Texas; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan., and Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J.

El Paso was awash in yellow ribbons, but the ribbons at the northeast El Paso home of Johnson's parents were purple, her favorite color.

Neighbor Tina Banston visited briefly because her 6-year-old daughter, Delaney, wanted to give a teddy bear to Johnson's 2-year-old daughter.

"I'm almost in tears because this is so exciting," Banston said. "We've all gone through so much just worrying about her."

(Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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