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Sunday, April 13

POWs' release revives emotions in former war captives

By Erin Kelly | GNS

WASHINGTON - David Eberly felt a special kind of joy when he learned Sunday that seven American prisoners of war in Iraq had been freed.

The 55-year-old retired Air Force colonel and Persian Gulf War veteran was taken prisoner for 43 days in 1991 by Iraqis, who tortured and starved him and other U.S. POWs. He said his faith in God and his country and his love for his family helped him survive.

``They (the freed POWs) are running on adrenalin right now,'' Eberly said in a phone interview from his home in Williamsburg, Va. ``Over the past three weeks, their entire focus has been on staying alive and combating the enemy psychologically while trying to maintain as much physical strength as possible.''

When they return home, the former POWs will need time to rest without being grilled about their experience by news reporters, family and friends, he said.

``While they may be part of some overwhelming celebration, psychologically they are off in a distant place,'' Eberly said. ``They've been through an experience where they had no control, where every footstep they heard has meant possible death coming. They need time to adjust from being a prisoner to being free. ...They will never forget this.''

Sam Johnson, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said he cried tears of joy when he learned the seven Americans were alive and well.

``I can tell you how I felt when I was set free - it was pure elation,'' said Johnson, who now serves as congressman for the Dallas suburbs in north Texas. ``I can't tell you how great it was. It was total relief.''

Johnson's advice to the POWs: ``They're gonna have to let their families fuss over them a little bit.''

``It's an emotional experience for families who feared their loved ones were dead to see them alive and safe again,'' said Johnson, whose wife didn't know for two years whether he was alive or dead.

The impact of captivity will vary from soldier to soldier, said retired Army Col. Bill Taylor, a senior associate for the Center for Strategic and International Studies

``Some of them might go through some type of psychological problem,'' Taylor said. ``It depends on the person and what happened to them.''

The medical care that each POW receives will include evaluation by psychologists, who will determine whether the soldier is strong enough to be questioned by military officials as part of a standard ``debriefing,'' Taylor said. Debriefings are done to document what happened to each U.S. service man or woman and to gain possible information about enemy operations, the retired colonel said.

``At this point, with the Iraqis falling apart and the war about over, I don't think we'll be pushing them for information if they're not up to it,'' Taylor said. ``One thing I'm sure will help them: Every one of them is going to be treated like (a hero) by their communities.''

Eberly and Johnson said they appreciate their lives and freedom more as a result of their imprisonment.

``It makes an imprint on you as far as what freedom is all about,'' said Johnson, who recently marked the 30th anniversary of his liberation from a Vietnam prison. ``Those who don't think it's worth fighting for have never known what it's like to lose their freedom. What these young Americans have been through will just make them stronger.''